Watching the upswell of people react to The Hunger Games as a movie has been one of the more interesting experiences of my amateur career reading and writing about movies. The trilogy of books, from author Suzanne Collins, have been popular since they were released, but they occupied the part of the Venn diagram that didn’t really intersect with ‘movie folk.’ So when the hype machine started for the film adaptation, you saw a lot of scoffing and disinterest. Battle Royale meets Twilight, was the dismissive wave, usually from people who hadn’t read Battle Royale (yes, it was a book first) or Twilight and certainly didn’t seem to know what The Hunger Games were about. Hype and dismissiveness were both at a fever pitch. Words were said, forums were rife with detractors and defenders; you’d think this was an event film or something.
But in reality the film that has resulted from all this hullabaloo is better than almost all of that squabbling, a sharp adaptation that rides heavily on the sheer acting force of its lead. For those not in the know, The Hunger Games is a fairly straightforward dystopian tale about the United States after a major war creates a police state. This technologically advanced society rules out of a central hub called The Capitol, and the rest of the country is carved up into various manufacturing or agricultural districts numbered 1-12, who exist perpetually stuck in a pre-industrial state, kept down by those in power. Each year, one young man and woman are taken from each district by lottery to fight to the death in the eponymous Hunger Games, televised throughout the districts, until one victor emerges.
This is the situation one Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in. Her younger sister was drawn for the games, but Katniss steps up in her place, sparing the young child. Katniss is already something of a free spirit, sneaking outside the fence of her district to go hunting for wild game, something outlawed and punishable by death. With her comes Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has a shared past with Katniss but is soft and amiable and not at all equipped to survive the games. They’re quickly whisked away, given haphazard training by their drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) as they prepare for the fight of their life. Peeta tries to play the media game as much as he can, struggling with the knowledge he’ll surely be killed quickly. Katniss, on the other hand, is driven to win by the knowledge that her sister and mother are waiting for her back home, needing her to survive.
As much time is spent on the preparation for the games as the games themselves, and in building this world that will unfold over three movies. This is definitely in many ways installment film making, an investment in a franchise that will pay off in later movies, but at the same time a lot of effort is spent on Katniss herself. And with good reason: she is by far the best part of the books, and one of the better leads in popular fiction. Katniss is the rare woman in fiction that is stridently and aggressively her own person. She has her goals, namely survival and providing for her family, and is proud of her capabilities. When Peeta admits to having a crush on her, her first reaction is anger at being made to look like a fool. She is the unicorn of women in media, disinterested in romance to the point where others accuse her of coldness, fierce beyond the point of standoffishness, but never not in keeping with her own goals and interests.
In fact, people go out of their way to try to turn her likable to appeal to the many sponsors who offer gifts to favorite contestants in the games. As much of a romance as exists in the movie is mostly manufactured. Poor Peeta, likable and earnest, the total opposite of Katniss, is happy to get even the scraps of a perfunctory relationship Katniss lets play out for the cameras. Katniss dominates the movie with a quiet, wild sort of strength that strides the line between charisma and standoffishness, and it’s wonderful to behold. Jennifer Lawrence as an actress has made plenty of interesting choices in her fairly short career, but here she carries the movie through sheer force of will. It is, by far, the reason the movie works as well as it does.
The games themselves are presented with a violence that’s actually a little shocking for PG-13. Kids murder kids, and it’s all fairly bloody. The movie hides most of its most brutal violence behind a shaky-cam that speaks to the lessons of Bourne–if you’re going to go for chaos, you need to not lose sight of the flow of the movie. Thankfully, director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) is a storyteller first and foremost, so rarely does the wild camera lose sight of the greater narrative, instead injecting the action scenes with an animal desperation they need. And most of the energy is punctuated with character moments that give it room to breathe, constructing a world that is in many ways greater than the sum of its parts.
Much has been made about the statements that The Hunger Games makes, but I feel like that’s maybe that’s missing the point. Sure, it’s dystopia is a little obvious, and its broader tale of totalitarian evil (especially in this first installment) isn’t particularly nuanced, but it has a lot of flavor that speaks to the troubles ahead. Katniss’ home, District 12, is all bright sunshine and rundown huts, everyone dressed like 1800s homesteaders. It’s full Appalachia, a world that’s fallen out of time. By contrast, the people of the Capitol are all wildly colored, with insane fashions that cross the line from haute couture to clownish. But for all their extravagance and technological superiority, there’s a kind of innocence to most of the people we meet in the Capitol. Sure, the leadership is aware of the bigger picture, but the people themselves are almost childishly naive. They live in a shell of comfort, and to the eternal frustration of Katniss seem to barely comprehend the crimes being committed by the games.
It’s an interesting dichotomy, a story of social imbalance and the carefully controlled violence that allows it to remain in power. But for all the words on the internet spent dissecting it, not many seem to recognize that it’s nothing new–if anything, The Hunger Games are as throwback a movie as one could get. What The Hunger Games is, from plotting to themes to even some of the design, is a giant sci-fi dystopian epic in the vein of 70s genre film making. The crazy costumes, the familiar cultural touchstones given slightly offbeat context, the sometimes heavy handed but earnest messaging? We could be talking about classics such as Logan’s Run or THX 1138 as much as we are The Hunger Games.
And really I feel that’s where the movie will fall historically, assuming the future movies don’t completely stumble. For as much as its capturing the zeitgeist at the moment, it is nothing more than a decent entry into a long line of similar fiction. Not that that’s a bad thing, as I feel those types of movies are now so rare that I champion them every time they come along. And rarely are they so dependent upon such an interesting, multifaceted female protagonist, one that makes well-trod material something worth revisiting and reexamining, carrying it into the context of the modern world for new audiences to enjoy.