The Hunger Games (Take Two)

Posted: April 8, 2012 in Joe Giambrone
Tags: , , , , , ,

by Joe Giambrone

A futuristic bread and circuses gladiatorial sacrifice — will it discomfit the next generation and open their eyes?

I have to admit that I don’t go to the theater very often. There isn’t a hell of a lot of “product” I’m willing to pay to see, much less pay top dollar while being assaulted by advertisements and propaganda prior to the showing; it sometimes approaches Dante’s visions of Hell. I just want to shout at the screen about the idiocy and the offensiveness of the people producing these visual treats. The mindless corporate whore characters, their canned charisma beaming down as they sell the junk food or car or mobile phone — where are the rotten tomatoes? The glorious stormtroopers get a plug as well, with Riefenstahl type camera work and the unquestionable greatness of the men in uniform. How best can we worship?

So, when I do venture out I like to be sure it’s going to be worth the time and effort and mental assault. The Hunger Games was worth the ordeal, though not a perfect movie by any standard. The PFB blog has already examined the Politics of the Hunger Games in a post by Bob Burnett, and he did such a great job I’ll try and avoid redundancy.

Perhaps it’s due to Jennifer Lawrence, who is one of the most interesting American actresses of the day. Her unstoppable performance in Winter’s Bone nearly redefined what a no-budget indie passion project could rise to in America today.

Lawrence was the only choice for the role of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, and the movie owes its success primarily to her. She is always watchable and authentic. I was less impressed with her male co-star Josh Hutcherson, preferring the first boy who was introduced (Liam Hemsworth) who seemed to have more gravitas all around. Still, the Hutcherson character needed to play second fiddle to Lawrence, and so a weaker performance was pre-ordained one way or another.

I’m assuming the reader has seen the film by now ($300M?). So what will the next generation think of an oppressive regime like that of Panem? Certainly they’ll reject the Stalinist, 1984, Phillip K. Dick amalgam society. But will they relate it back to the here and now? Will they see a mindless bloodbath of chosen Tributes as something akin to the real wars raging around the globe, with fallen soldiers — and civilians — not all that different than themselves? Killing one another as mindlessly and for similarly obscured ethereal reasons? Will they challenge the propaganda state, here in the real world?

The example of Katniss standing up against the state diktat should resonate. But it requires an understanding of the times. Standing up against what exactly, and for what exactly, that is the true challenge of a society so steeped in propaganda masquerading as a “free press.” I’m referring to ours, not Panem. In Panem I didn’t see much propaganda at all. The people just acquiesced out of helplessness, perhaps a lot like in real life. None dared challenge the existing order — with a couple of exceptions. When the little girl “Rue” is killed, her father incites a rebellion against the state. This is apparently quashed pretty quickly and proves ineffectual.

Of course Lawrence and Hutcherson decide to take a stand against the arbitrary state power by choosing to kill themselves together and leave the circus with no survivor at all for the people to worship. This was an interesting conclusion to the games, and one wonders what the author has planned in the subsequent books and films.

I liked the Stanley Tucci TV show, a lot. This bit of media proved a great link between their time and ours. Bigger than any current TV audience, but yet the show was mired in the same conventions and artifice. This segment was nearly flawless and presented the Hunger Games in an immersive matter-of-fact manner.

Donald Sutherland was awesome as the president of Panem. This was such a great casting choice, as was Tucci. Sutherland’s president was just what he needed to be, snakelike and ruthless, yet never over the top.

I also liked the special effects which were what was needed and no more. The restraint sold the world as believable, and one hopes this trend will continue.

Now what I didn’t like. Obviously the length of 2:20 meant it would drag somewhere. But worse than that, it didn’t need to. The problem was that some of the more important minor characters were not developed enough. When Rue was killed, I found it hammered home how I was supposed to feel, but I didn’t really. She wasn’t enough of a three dimensional character for her death to be seen as anything more than a plot convention, a box ticked on a list somewhere. There wasn’t enough Rue, other than she was a young girl who sided with Lawrence. That’s about all there was to her, and it just wasn’t enough.

A similar problem affected the main villain in the games (who’s name I can’t even remember). Anyway he’s the last boy standing other than the two lovers. He says something to the effect of he’s a killer, and that’s all he knows: not sure why? He says he’s dead anyway: not sure why, since he was technically close to winning. He’s had it with the contest, essentially, although I’m still not sure why. Now this could have been a meaningful examination of the concept. Why just the two lovers surviving? Why not making peace and having the last three rebel? Why not a debate around the larger question and at least drawing it out a bit further? But no, he gets disposed of rather quickly, by Lawrence and beau, after we never really knew anything about him in the first place. Another undeveloped character who warranted more attention and exploration.

Okay, in hindsight we can nitpick every decision. They wanted a shorter film as it was already too long. They decided to bank on longing looks between Lawrence and Hutcherson and to confine the perspective so as to remain ignorant of the other characters. Fine. Something still could have been done to key in the audience that these other characters were more than pawns in the game, exactly how Panem was treating them. As an audience we should not be taking a similar point of view as the Panem game masters.

Another problem I had was in the filming style. Too much shaky, in-your-face, shallow depth of field with blurry noses and drifting focus. At times it seemed like nothing but closeups, jittery unsure ones. That style may be in vogue, but it lacks the artistry of more nuanced shots and intentional composition. We can argue about that choice, but I found it wanting.

Something I disliked was not the film itself but the small-minded obligatory accusations of plagiarism, as if The Hunger Games was really just a “rip-off” of the Japanese film Battle Royale. This is absurd, of course, and reveals the ignorance of those leveling the charge.

Similar smears were lobbed at Avatar when it came out, accusing it of being Fern Gully, or Dances With Wolves. My friend, if you can’t see the magnitudes and eons of difference between Avatar and Dances With Wolves then you have no place commenting on film. Avatar drew its world not from some film but from the history of conquest stretching back millenia. Stronger, more technologically advanced invaders have exploited and massacred the indigenous throughout human history. The invader’s guilt gives rise to the myth of the “noble savage” and the savior story. This is our history, ingrained in our culture, on land awash in centuries of blood.

Battle Royale is absolutely nothing like The Hunger Games, not in story, characters, world, tone or style. There is a facile similarity in the contest that could mean something except for the centuries of Roman gladiator combat that preceded it. Was The Hunger Games also stolen from the gladiator sequence in Conan The Barbarian? Or what about the film Gladiator? And why not Lord of the Flies? These inane smears against a well done and widely sourced series of novels and now films are pathetic, and yet they persist. Trite dismissals are used to shut down debate and understanding, not to foster them. Perhaps there’s an element of jealousy in using them.

Wrapping up: The Hunger Games delivers, and not just for the tween girl audience. It falls short of really ripping into the flesh of the matter, but then again there are at least two other novels to carry the story forward. It shoots a warning across the bow that the unquestioned power of the state leads to atrocity and servitude. Perhaps this somewhat blurry mirror will show young audiences a glimpse of what to be ever vigilant against.

Your Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s