The Hunger Games

Lionsgate (2012) 142 minutes PG-13

Director: Gary Ross

Screenplay: Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray and Gary Ross; based on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Cinematography: Tom Stern; Editing: Christopher S. Capp, Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling

Production Design: Philip Messina; Set Decoration: Larry Dias; Costumes: Judianna Makovsky; Score: James Newton Howard

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Alexander Ludwig (Cato), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Amandla Stenberg (Rue), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Snow)

Based as it is on the first novel in a popular trilogy of teen fiction, and given the legion of devoted fans the movie inherited before it was ever released, it’s probably unnecessary to point out at this late stage that The Hunger Games is about a futuristic, state sponsored reality TV show which pits twenty four adolescents against each other in a no-holds barred fight to the finish. Author Suzanne Collins, who also collaborated on the movie’s screenplay with director Gary Ross and Billy Ray, was inspired by the explosion in popularity of elimination round reality programs like Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice, The Amazing Race and even American Idol, where the public at large is invited to vote on their favorites, weighing in on who gets axed each week.

The contestants of her Hunger Games are even assigned mentors like on The Voice and when Woody Harrelson turns up as one, Haymitch Abernathy, doing his same patented People vs. Larry Flynt standup comedy routine, the slow seep of steadily building dread seems to instantly dissipate. A litany of other free form influences allow Collins to draw a direct line of descent from our contemporary televised reality competitions to other, similarly unsavory games held throughout human history. Taken as a whole, they comprise the amalgam that gave rise to the cutthroat tournament of the title.

The basic premise of The Hunger Games is a reworking of the Greek myth of Theseus, in which boys and girls were offered as tribute to the king of Crete every few years and led into the Minotaur’s maze to be devoured. Here, one boy and one girl from each of the twelve outlying ‘districts’ are selected for sacrifice during a lotto like drawing called the ‘Reaping.’ The legendary and unparalleled litany of blood sports that constituted the three ring Roman arena are also alluded to, as the contestants in these Hunger Games are paraded before the public in wheeled chariots intended to evoke images of triumphal processions.

Moreover, the theme of the film, concerning the degenerative moral decay of a society that turns such state sponsored exhibitions into entertainment for the desensitized, sheep like masses is, by and large, the same as that of Ridley Scott’s Roman-set Gladiator, which similarly attacked violence as a spectator sport. The way these kids are feted and fawned over before the big event, you’d never think they were being led to the slaughter. They’re not unlike Aztec sacrifices who were treated like kings for a year before having their still beating hearts ripped from their chests.

The Reaping itself evokes intimations of virgin sacrifice in that it is children who are selected to be sent into the arena to die. The Hunger Games trades on the sort of irrational, fairy tale horrors that haunt the minds of adolescence the same way a movie like Dragonslayer does, with its similar ‘lottery’ designed to randomly select a sacrificial victim. It’s no wonder young Prim wakes from her sleep screaming. In their way, the Hunger Games can be seen as a suicidal variation on the Olympics, only here it’s District tributes, rather than representatives from various nations, who are drawn into the competition. Both contests however are committed to championing the concept of physical superiority. This is most apparent in that promo played over the lottery and adorned by strong, virile athletes photographed sensually against the discus of the setting sun. It seems to have been pieced together using stray images from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad.

The Riefenstahl imagery is apt since it associates The Hunger Games with Nazism and other more contemporary fascist dictatorships. When the kids queue in their drab Sunday best for the Reaping, for instance, they spark images of communist indoctrination and re-education camps. There’s also intimations of the Holocaust in The Hunger Games’ depiction of a society methodically selecting members of its own citizenry for random slaughter. When Prim’s number comes up, just as in her nightmares, and the shrieking girl is carted off, we’re reminded of the shattering scene in the concentration camp at the end of Sophie’s Choice.

The Hunger Games is set in the future rather than the mythical, medieval or even modern past, in a totalitarian state that seems similar to those suggested by writers like Orwell in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a depressing, dystopian vision of a fascistic future in which Big Brother has become an extension of invasive reality TV itself. There’s something askew about director Gary Ross’ point of view however. The audience is too often allowed to forget that the Hunger Games’ cameras are always there, watching and encroaching upon the characters’ privacy with their all-access, 24/7 coverage, even during their most intimate moments. Whereas the hidden camera’s omnipresence should be consistently emphasized, the contestants appear to be alone and altogether unobserved for extended periods of time rather than under constant surveillance. Perhaps Ross should have had cinematographer Tom Stern adopt a more realistic, docudrama approach, turning events into a mockumentary akin to Fear Factor and the other reality shows it takes off on. That would at least make viewers feel as though they were there themselves, hungry, hunted, rather than just another member of the complacent TV audience, a bystander baying for blood. This is one rare instance where the overused stylistics of The Blair Witch Project and its brood of descendants might have proven effective.

No clear mention is made of how America got to its sorry present state, so we don’t know if the world we’re seeing is meant to be the result of some post-apocalyptic fall out, as are so many other future-set films. The citizens of Panem, the state capital, dress so wildly in their dayglow hair and chalky Kabuki mask makeups, mixed with fuchsia colored outfits, that they impart the impression of genetic mutations, even if there’s nothing physically amiss with them. It’s as if Katy Perry and Lady Gaga had collaborated as technical advisors to Judianna Makovsky’s fashion department. Inhabiting this corrupt and decadent city, the ghoulish, garish ruling classes are swathed in a seizure inducing swirl of swinging 60’s psychedelia and florescent 80’s punk. It’s a world redecorated by Andy Warhol.

As in Brazil and Blade Runner, the look of the future is a rummage bin of retro styles and fashions from many diverse eras fused into one. The most strikingly pronounced are the contoured, art deco lines of the 30’s and minimal, space age steel and aluminum. The architecture of Philip Messina, who dreamt up the production design, and Larry Dias who did the set decoration seems a blur of the Nuremburg rallies of the Third Reich, communist China and Soviet Russia under Stalin, a compendium in effect of several separate authoritarian regimes to create a composite picture, the all-encompassing look of totalitarianism. Panem, which betrays the Greco-Roman influence of early Americana only more excessively so (we seem to be approaching a hermetically sealed coastal city laid out along the shores of the Mediterranean), is an explosion of vibrant, candy colored pop art; this is the future as foreseen by The Factory. It’s meant to emphasize the overindulgent decadence of city life as opposed to the austere, rural Appalachian hills our heroine Katniss Everdeen and her kin hail from. The only people who don’t resemble freaks are the dowdy plain Janes seized from the styx.

The strange zoning laws which have sectioned America into twelve separate ‘Districts’ (originally there were thirteen, like the original thirteen colonies), seem intended to divvy the country up into its major resource producing centers. District 12, from which sacrificial tributes Katniss and Peeta are pulled, is the coal producing region comprising what was formerly Appalachia, but we get no sense of what the districts from which the other contestants come are supposed to be in the market for. And, rather than the future, the scenes of Katniss’ home life seem set in the undefined past, her District 12 the mirror image of some mining camp from the Depression era. Oddly, train travel still seems the fastest means of mobility, as if airplanes and cars hadn’t yet been invented, though we see at least one government controlled hovercraft scouring the area for insurgents.

The folks from District 12 are the underdogs in life and in the games, the ruling class using them for slave labor or entertainment, as if the country’s political constructs had slipped back into feudal times. They’re glorified sharecroppers and ‘The Reaping,’ with its suitably agricultural associations, is the penalty the various districts must pay, one intended to pluck the cream of their crop. The state is, in effect, cutting down their most vital and important natural resource, their children (their future), before their time. Stripped of their goods and exports as well as their sprouts, the capital rapes and exploits these outlying regions as if they were conquered colonies. In an indirect way, imposing such harsh reparations to punish the districts for the historical rebellion recalls the government’s treatment of the south following the Civil War, which was motivated by a similar desire to punish the rebels, to make them pay for having defied the sovereignty of the United States in attempting to succeed from the Union. 

As its title would suggest, The Hunger Games never lets us forget that these characters are starving and malnourished, that these ‘games’ are in essence a variation on the larger dog eat dog struggle for survival they’re forced to compete in back in the real world. Food plays a prominent part in proceedings, whether the burned loaf of bread Peeta once threw the famished Katniss in flashback, the way the contestants are wined and dined in the days leading up to the big show like calves being fattened for the slaughter, Katniss’ idle threat to eat the cat that hisses at her, her warning to Peeta during training to demonstrate his upper body strength because the other contestants are looking at him like he’s lunch, the poisoned berries Katniss prevents Peeta from popping into his mouth, the apples and oranges that detonate the landmines surrounding the stored provisions, the lifesaving soup sent by their sponsor, Katniss trying to bring down a deer then shooting a pheasant, the squirrels Peeta mentions her selling his family. The prospect of wealth and permanent financial security for survivors, through personal appearances and celebrity endorsements, is a tempting enticement to risk life and limb in the games since the poverty and starvation they’d face back home seem just as certain a death sentence. 

It’s always fascinating watching actors playing characters who are themselves forced to act in some capacity as Katniss and Peeta must do here. But the bomb Peeta drops on national TV by declaring his undying love for Katniss might have meant more if we’d been privy to the fact that the two were already acquainted back home, before they were ever shuttled to the big city. Instead, the flashback concerning the tie that binds them (hunger) is parceled out in bits and flashes, so it takes awhile before the big picture, that Katniss feels she must save Peeta in the Hunger Games because he once saved her from starvation, can be pieced together. It’s never made quite clear, however, as to what extent their professed love is simply a play for the camera and to what degree it comes genuinely from the heart. The impression at movie’s end is that their affection for one another is that of brother and sister, that Katniss remains loyal to Gale who’s faithfully awaiting the return of his warrior princess, filling the function traditionally reserved for females left behind on the home front.

For his part, Peeta is a baker’s boy and as a preparer of food also fills a capacity traditionally reserved for women. He seems so weak and sensitive, with his overbearing mother, and ‘artistic’ with his preoccupation with makeup design, it remains a highly dubious prospect that he would be attracted to any girl in the way he professes to be attracted to Katniss. It’s small wonder then that she immediately clobbers him backstage rather than falling for his public line. They make an ideal match (they’re even wounded during combat in the exact same spot on their leg), but for all the reasons that would make a romantic relationship impossible. Katniss and Peeta are each others’ perfect beards. He makes the arrow wielding Amazon seem softer (she calls it weak) and more desirably feminine, and she saves his physically inferior ass every time he’s about to be annihilated. It’s a win win situation for everyone.

The intriguing question, as to why Peeta should be attracted, as he professes, to a woman so much stronger than he is himself, is one the movie never gets around to exploring. Suffice it to say, he’s made to feel inferior to Katniss in every way. No one gives him a snowball’s chance in hell of emerging from the games alive for instance, not even his own people (“You know what my mother said to me when she came to say good-bye, as if to cheer me up, she says maybe District Twelve will finally have a winner. Then I realized she didn’t mean me.”), and he manages to survive only by using what would traditionally be regarded as feminine wiles, manipulating the TV audience by appealing to heart interest and playing up to the stronger contestants for protection and provisions. Though in the preliminaries much to-do was made of Peeta’s upper body strength this is never brought into logical play during the games themselves, as his skill with camouflage is. And we fully expect it to be there at the end, where he should use it to ultimately prove his virility by tossing that big blonde bully to the dogs.

Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, first blipped on the radar as the conflicted son of lesbians Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids are Alright and last year appeared in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island opposite the diminishingly masculine Dwayne Johnson, so his appearance here as such a weak stripling seems like perfect typecasting. His hair has even been dyed a fey shade of platinum to emphasize the effect. This doughy baker’s boy named after the bread is meant to have gone totally soft by living a more comfortable life than the other families in his region. He’s hasn’t stayed hungry, like Katniss and her kin, and so has had no call to develop the same hunting and survival skills, the killer instinct she’s been forced to. He’s surrounded by food, the source of it, and being so well fed, not nearly hungry enough to go for the jugular. Consequently he’s far less equipped than Katniss to take care of himself and survive the endurance test of the Hunger Games. The only chance he has lies in deploying his artistic skills, painting himself in chameleon colors to blend in with the rocks, trees and foliage. He’s a burgeoning makeup artist with skills worthy of some major Hollywood production, and while we’re on the subject this movie deserves an award of some kind itself for such crazy and quite clever cosmetics.

Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen grew up hungry. Having always lived the hunter’s life, been forced in effect to take her father’s place as provider for the family following his death in the coal mines, she’s used to looking after herself. Just as she was in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence’s Katniss is virtually the sole support here for younger siblings and infirm older parents who may as well be children. The character’s rustic, country upbringing again aids her immeasurably when thrown back on her own resources. She’s been living off the land for so many years already she has an instantaneous leg up on the competition, possessing survival skills and a self sufficiency foreign to city folk. Gale calls her Catnip, and she’ll later be treed by Cato as if she were a cat chased into the branches by a barking bulldog. Like the scene near the beginning that links her with that ill tempered tabby, Katniss’ very name indicates her predatory nature. She’s a born hunter, like a feline; it’s innate in her character.

The opening scenes depict her trying to bring down a deer, which is as illegal as it was for Robin Hood in the king’s forest, and the association immediately tags her as a similar subversive while placing her in the same iconographic ranks as other great archers of history and legend. Katniss possesses the same skill with an arrow as Robin Hood did, as well as the length of bone of an athletic Amazonian. With her braids and bow, she’s Diana the Huntress, sure shot Annie Oakley and William Tell all rolled into one. When she shoots that apple out of the luau pig’s mouth to leave a lasting impression during her demonstration before the committee, it’s a defiant act tantamount in the telling to Tell’s shooting that apple off his son’s head.

It’s only with a bow and arrow in hand that Katniss feels fully functional, and it’s a pity she doesn’t make a beeline for it at the beginning, grabbing it from the provisions stacked in front of home base. Nor do we ever see to what use she puts the other trinkets, like the slinky-style, coiled wire contained in the duffel bag she does grab. A girl as resourceful as this should be showing finding a practical use for them all. When her team tries to put Katniss in a rational frame of mind by reasoning “You’ve hunted before.” her outraged response is “Not humans.” In The Most Dangerous Game, to which The Hunger Games owes a nod of acknowledgement, there was revealed to be nothing like the thrill of stalking prey as intelligent as man. Here, there’s an intriguing suggestion of Katniss’ growing horror at becoming just such a stone cold killer, all red of tooth and claw, discovering a latent aptitude for it. But the story gingerly sidesteps this issue. It never forces Katniss to confront her own innate animal instincts and drives, the thrilling bloodlust rising in her veins. The way events are skillfully maneuvered she’s never forced to question what exactly she’d do, how far she’d be willing to go in the interest of self preservation, in order to stay alive.

Capitalism encourages citizens to compete with one another in a more civilized application of social Darwinism, and as Katniss is well aware, the game is rigged from the outset by the perverse puppet master, just as the equally tortuous dance marathon was rigged in They Shoot Horses Don’t They?. When she comes close to the peripheral boundary designated for these games, the masterminds pulling the strings from the holographic control room hurl a forest fire at her to add to the drama. When the contestants are whittled down to a standoff, they release the hellhounds. But because the permissive society of Panem is never fully delineated, the games fail to become a metaphorical microcosm of the larger world around them, as did the exhaustive, draining dance of life in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Like that story too, the contestants here find it advantageous to secure themselves sponsors to back them during this grueling, physically arduous endurance test.

Landing the most coveted role of the year for actresses of her age range in this avidly anticipated enterprise makes Lawrence something of this season’s Rooney Mara. It’s such a well rounded role it would be a gift to any young artist but I can’t imagine anyone else better suited to the part than she is. Her Oscar nominated Winter’s Bone performance now seems, in retrospect, like a dry run, a picture length screen test for this much more high profile part.  Her reputation precedes her. The part of Katniss lets Lawrence do it all, oscillate from Hollywood ingénue to hard bitten frontier woman to devoted helpmeet to nurturing mother figure to subversive rabble rouser. She may be trying to impress her various audiences on screen, the hunger games committee, Peeta, her sponsors, TV viewers, but it’s the one in the movie seats that she really succeeds in bowling over. She scores a bullseye in this one, at times bringing to mind an American Cate Blanchette, at others a strapping, fleshier young Laura Dern. Her Katniss may not seem like star material at first, at least not until she receives the proverbial Hollywood makeover before her appearance on the red carpet in that Roman chariot. The brilliant Max Factor of Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna brings out the hidden beauty buried beneath this bedimmed diamond in the rough. On the rare occasions when Katniss lets her hair down out of that tightly wound braid over the shoulder, she’s revealed to have a smoky eyed, ravishingly Nordic blonde beauty about her. She’s transformed into a glamazon for the TV cameras and the movie’s.

Lawrence, a polished actress, is playing a girl who is herself charmingly guileless before the public, in the way Leelee Sobieski (who she resembles, together with a touch of Evan Rachel Wood) used to be. Awkward and self conscious on the chat show rounds, she suffers from terrible stage fright before going on. She may have been roped into the competitive Hunger Games by default, but Katniss doesn’t have the first clue how to play the game, the media circus surrounding them, as smoothly as Peeta does. He takes to celebrity whoring and courting the press like a duck to water, much more readily than Katniss, throwing all those genetic studies indicating girls to be more socially adept than guys out the door. Like the prickly young Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Katniss initially feels it beneath her to pander to the public, to prostitute her charms in such a cheap manner, wanting to instead succeed on her own terms. It’s fascinating then to watch her finding her legs and learning the ropes, marketing herself as ‘the girl on fire,’ with all the sexual connotations that designation entails. She discovers how to manipulate viewers to her own end by making love to the camera before the eyes of millions, and all the while doing it in a sly, understated manner that allows audiences in the theater to see the real thoughts and emotions behind the charade audiences watching on TV are totally taken in by.

Only movie goers are permitted to ascertain to what extent Katniss may be acting and to what degree she’s meant to be taken seriously when she appropriates Peeta’s star crossed lover pretense in order to manipulate audiences into identifying with their puppy love drama and drum up support. She shrewdly softens the spectators toward her by consciously appealing to sexual stereotypes, playing the woman’s part by reshaping her archer’s arrows into Cupid’s bow. Sex becomes another weapon added to her expanding arsenal. The way Katniss and Peeta consciously manufacture these cardboard images for themselves, knowing they will appeal to the greatest number of people watching at home, has as much to say about how reality TV show contestants adopt easily classifiable ‘types’ with which to pigeonhole themselves, as it does about the Hollywood dream factory’s similar manufacturing and promotion of phony star personas in order to sell their prepackaged celebrity ‘product’ to the public.

It’s that morbid mob of spectators that gives the Hunger Games staying power. As Gale points out, if everyone simply turned it off, tuned out and refused to watch, there would be no show. It would die the slow death of any other Neilson ratings casualty. This is mass technology’s variation on Blasco Vincente Ibáñez’s extreme-sport obsessed, thousand headed hydra, prophesied as far back as his bullfighting book Blood and Sand over a century ago. Here, the typically macabre Master of Ceremonies with his ghoulish running commentary, played in the past by such actors as Gig Young in They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Joel Grey in Cabaret and Richard Dawson in The Running Man, has been splintered into the megalomaniacal TV host of Stanley Tucci and the ice blooded programmer of Wes Bentley with his tellingly satanic goatee. By focusing on the ghoulishness of the grinning crowds, The Hunger Games becomes a rueful meditation on the fame monster, the same way Chicago was. Like Roxie Hart in that film, Katniss must also play to and manipulate the public in the interest of self preservation. Essentially, she must learn to emulate Peeta, displaying the same sort of feminine wiles, while Peeta must take on many of Katniss’ traits, becoming more physically rugged and capable of taking care of himself.

While affording a testing ground for her survival skills, the games also serve to soften Katniss. They become the vehicle through which she’s able to reclaim the finer qualities she’d had to forego in the hand to mouth struggle for survival. The psychological roots of her stoicism become clear when she commands her fragile mother, who had gone to pieces following her husband’s death, not to give sway to her emotions again “No matter what you’re feeling…,” since she’s the only one left to take care of Prim now and has to be strong for her sake. Forced to become the ‘man’ of the house following her father’s death, Katniss has had to be stalwart, steel willed and dry eyed for so long she’s lost touch with her softer, feminine side. Her mother’s debilitating state has left her terrified of what being emotional, sensitive, a woman could likewise reduce her to. It’s why she reacts so violently to Peeta’s public declaration of love, believing being seen in such a light makes her seem ‘weaker’ than the competition and hence more vulnerable. Katniss’ relationship with Rue induces her to get back in touch with her better half, the part of herself she’d long suppressed, by reopening those reservoirs of emotion.

Having devoted her life to looking after Prim more like a mother than a sister, the hard edged Katniss volunteers to take her place in the games knowing she’s the far more capable of the two, the dainty little Primrose being too prim and proper to put up much of a fight. Katniss’ sole reason for participating  was in order to protect her sister, which is why it cuts her so deep when she proves unable to protect Rue, who reminds her so much of Prim. Of course we’re aware that this is simply a function of the story, that Rue and all the other ‘innocents’ must be eliminated by the long arm of fate and coincidence by story’s end so that Katniss and Peeta can emerge victorious without actually getting any blood on their own hands. Other people do all the dirty work for them. What keeps us riveted is observing the moviemakers’ machinations in orchestrating all of this.  

It doesn’t make sense that Katniss would be assigned an assessment of eleven when her anti-establishment attitude should be the last thing the committee encourages, considering the purpose of the games. She’s a rebel who gives the beaten down viewers hope and inspiration, her subversive actions (showing mercy by protecting Rue and opting to go together rather than killing Peeta), spark a fire in the viewers, proving to them that despite the government’s attempt to squash their souls and dehumanize them in spirit, they remain men capable of performing heroic deeds, of fighting back. Katniss’ three-fingered salute recalls the peace sign of counter culture days when a contentious America, embroiled in the midst of Vietnam, was likewise encouraged by the young generation to make love instead of war. 

Because the movie is told subjectively, almost entirely from Katniss’ point of view, we don’t get a fully developed sense of the impact the Hunger Games are having on the other contestants, much less on the nationwide audience, or how effectively Katniss’ shrewd manipulations are pushing their buttons. One wonders precisely where her groundswell of support is originating from. For all we know, there may be Katniss fan clubs cropping up all across the country. All we ascertain for certain is the impact her compassionate treatment of Rue has on her home sector.

This futuristic society may genetically engineer killer bee-like ‘tracker jackers’ and whatever those hellhounds are supposed to be in order to perfect more lethal and effective murder machines, the same way they train young athletes like Cato specifically for combat in the games, but what feasible purpose would a hybrid like a mockingjay, a cross between a mockingbird and a blue jay serve? Rue’s district has found a way to use its imitative calls as a means of communication that circumvents the monitoring of the state, much the same way slaves, forbidden from speaking and gathering, knitted symbolic designs into the patterns of quilts whose hidden meanings their masters weren’t capable of interpreting.  Moreover, this reference to mockingjays evokes free form associations with To Kill a Mockingbird, which also focused on racism, oppression, and the injustice of a corrupt political system.

 Reduced to a number instead of a name, Peeta’s statement on the eve of the games about wanting to make a gesture to let the Capital know it doesn’t “own him” (which will subsequently give rise to Katniss’ spontaneous three fingered salute) further links events to the baggage of oppression. Hunted down like an escaping slave, with a pack of hounds baying at her heels by the end, it’s no wonder Katniss and Cinna identify so strongly with one another, forging a deep and abiding bond, that Katniss serves as mentor to Rue, or that her life is unexpectedly saved by Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi), another black contestant, in recognition of this good deed.

Upon Rue’s death, followed by Katniss’ compassionate burial of her beneath a bed of flowers, her District 11 erupts in a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, not unlike Katniss’ own. Smarting at the injustice, their feelings spill over into an impulsive uprising, suppressed by the storm trooper-like peacekeepers, who turn the hoses on them, invoking news footage of equally reactionary official response to Civil Rights marchers, and linking events further with the black experience. Though the games were specifically conceived as punishment for a previous rebellion, and as a standing threat serve as warning to the outlying districts against any future revolts, this demonstration shows that they’re actually having a deleterious effect. We’re given the false impression that the other districts will follow the lead of 11, rising up in a chain reaction of civil disturbances, akin to the way political revolt swept like a contagion across Egypt, Libya, and the Middle East during the Arab Spring not long ago.

There’s something decidedly unsavory about watching children degenerate into bloodthirsty little savages. After all, civilization is designed to indoctrinate the wild child right out of them. The Hunger Games on the other hand turn this notion on its head. They’re a ritualized, state imposed exhibition of survival of the fittest. Watching this movie, I’m left with the same impression I received when I first became acquainted with the Lord of the Flies. The fine line between the civilized and the savage is so thin, it doesn’t take much of a catalyst to initiate the process of solipsism, regressing people to a more primitive state. The movie condemns the dehumanizing depths to which humans are reduced in the struggle for survival, forced in essence to deny their better nature in favor of brute animal force. Roped into the branches, Katniss is like a monkey in that tree, recalling our ape ancestors and when she’s again treed by the pack of bullies later, we seem to be watching a hunting party riding to hounds. The games are intended to reduce the participants to their primal roots, turning back the clock to the time when we were all hunter-gatherers engaged in a predatory battle with the elements and other hostile clans.  What’s horrifying about the film is, despite taking place in a presumably civilized future, the mentality and ritualistic practices engaged in are as chillingly brutal and barbaric as anything dreamed up in the most wildly pagan past. For all his apparent technological advancement, mankind has morally and spiritually regressed to a more brutish, primitive stage in his development.

At times the movie suggests a metaphor for militaristic societies where the nation’s best and brightest become glorified cannon fodder. Alexander Ludwig’s Cato is the arch villain of this piece, a state trained assassin who graduated from government run military schools as a lethal weapon programmed to kill. To professionals like him this is all fun and games, a lark. An extension of the mock ups he’s been training for his whole life these are real war games. Banding together for strength in numbers, these cold blooded professionals are not unlike roaming street gangs that pick off the weak, the wounded or stragglers, displaying a disturbing pack behavior that recalls the hunting practices of other wild beasts of prey. It’s the same herd mentality that underlies commonplace schoolyard bullying, taken to its penultimate extremes.

As in Lord of the Flies, the weaker and younger children’s only chance for survival is by submitting to the will of the older and more dominant, as Peeta does when he joins forces with Cato’s crew to hunt down Katniss. It’s the fascistic rule of strength over weakness on a field of combat where might makes right. The Hunger Games’ lack of age limits (anyone from twelve to eighteen can qualify) has high schoolers in competition with elementary school kids. Without any weight divisions to make the contest seem more fairly matched, everyone’s just poured into the ring together pell-mell, minus rules or a sense of fair play. Anything is permissible as long as it makes for a good show. But if all the committee really wants is an exciting competition, one would think they’d pick their tributes according to talent and skill sets rather than by totally random lotteries.

While reducing the characters to their base natures by drawing out their animal instinct for survival, the movie remains amusingly silent concerning man’s other rudimentary biological imperative- survival of the species. When Cato corners Katniss in that tree and starts climbing up after her, his baiting taunts take on the unsettling aura of sexual threats, which wouldn’t be unexpected, given their suggestive glances and wary appreciation of one another’s physical prowess back at training camp. There they had sized each other up as if scoping out potential mates. Each recognizes the considerable skills the other possesses and pegs him or her as their primary competition. But the movie skirts the underlying attraction between Katniss and Cato, the mutual recognition that in the other can be found their equal and ideal physical match. During the course of the games, their victory can only be assured by the destruction of the other and that means by any means necessary, adding a layered, lethal edge to the traditional battle of the sexes. In Cato’s attempt to gain the upper hand then, it wouldn’t seem anything out of the ordinary for this unprincipled, state trained killer to use sexual domination as an additional weapon, and he wouldn’t be alone. After all, in his televised flirtations, Peeta was similarly exploiting his more romantic inclinations toward Katniss in order to likewise gain an edge, just as an uncharacteristically coquettish Katniss will later toy with Peeta’s feelings without his knowledge, in order to garner public compassion. The movie discreetly pulls back from going quite that far though. The Hunger Games revels in untold numbers of brutal, underage bloodlettings, but exploring the way wily teens can use sexual mind games and physical force to manipulate and control one another is believed to be going a tad too far.

We’ve seen this premise played out many times with adults as the protagonists, in movies like Death Race 2000, Rollerball and The Running Man. But by reducing the average age of the contestants in this competition by decades, the minds behind The Hunger Games are attempting to ratchet up the shock value in a particularly lurid way. Little kids are naturally inclined to emulate adults but it seems downright perverse to have them being primed for such violence, engaging in extreme, grown up blood sports that are far too mature for their tender years. This is an NC-17 concept, tamed and marketed toward a PG-13 demographic, reality TV turned into child snuff for the entertainment of the masses. And parents can’t very well rail against the negative impact of violence in the movies when it’s their very sons and daughters who are perpetrating it onscreen.

In theory, The Hunger Games isn’t really that far removed from the structure of horror films, in which the chief thrill arises from the myriad way the moviemakers devise to dispatch the cast, progressively whittling it down until only one is left standing. There’s death by hornet nest, poisoned berry, sword, spear, knife, neck snapping, and wild dog pack. I can only imagine how the sequels in this new franchise are going to have to keep upping the ante to maintain the same level of suspense. More than likely the brutality of the games will have to be increased tenfold in the movies to come. That the script doesn’t delve deep enough, leaving things feeling half baked, with characters not fully delineated and relationships not thoroughly unraveled may simply be the nature of the beast. I left the first Twilight film feeling the same way. The moviemakers’ tactics are to leave many things unsaid, by means of intro into the next installment, the way old cliffhangers used to have audiences dangling from chapter to chapter.

The book, which was written for the same tween audience the Twilight films are angled toward, was understandably sanitized for the sake of its intended readership, but a subject this dark and disturbing would require emotional soundings not yet possessed by its underage fan base in order to do it full justice. Consequently, the easy and obvious points this movie adaptation scores at the expense of reality TV, totalitarian regimes and equality of the sexes seem glib and superficial. The age limits have been lowered, but despite the face lift the movie isn’t really saying anything refreshingly novel. In a way, it seems pointless to spoon feed kids stories based on more adult subject matter when they’re not really at a point in life to yet grasp the finer shadings. It’s not likely they even realize that the movie is surreptitiously mock(jay)ing them for being the first generation to make reality TV a respectable career path to fame and fortune. But at least there’s an alternative out there now, something more substantive being offered for them to chew on aside from angst ridden vampires and lovelorn werewolves, even if this one can likewise be pared down to the same arcane emotional triangle, with a girl caught between two boys who seem to have been solely conceived to embody opposing extremes of the male spectrum, the sensitive artist and the virile athlete, the way women used to be narrowly conceived as either virgins or whores.

Thanks to the tight editing by Christopher S. Capp, Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling this movie is far more suspenseful than real reality TV. Yet like those shows, we’re still encouraged to place our bets, same as the viewing audience onscreen. We only wish we could call in to vote some of the more annoying contestants off. Of course the favorites we’re coerced into cheering for also happen to be the film’s stars, since they’re the only two contestants out of the twenty four that we’re really permitted to get to know to any appreciable degree. It’s a mark in the movie’s favor that it manages to generate such nail biting suspense. Even when we know full well the odds needn’t be in Katniss’ favor because the strength of her star power renders her impervious, it’s fascinating to watch the game played out. Unfortunately, the other contestants aren’t distinguished one from the other to give us the same rooting interest, so we can’t really become emotionally invested in the possibility of their survival. Like Gale this go-round, they hardly seem to be in the running at all and we quickly lose interest in trying to keep count of how many times the cannon booms, signaling the death of another one. Apart from Rue, there’s no sense of horror at the other young kids’ quite brutal deaths, hardly even a tremor of remorse. And though we’re loathe to admit it, we’re glad that their elimination moves our heroes one step closer to victory. This is the same emotion that surges through Katniss herself, making her feel like a ruthless opportunist. It’s survivor’s guilt, the same guilt that’s turned Woody Harrelson’s previous victor, Haymitch Abernathy, into an alcoholic stooge.  While there’s a part of us in disbelief, right up to the starting shot, that these kids are going to be made to go through with this travesty, at some point along the way we find ourselves becoming as callous as the TV audience onscreen, rationalizing that there’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition. As the kids keep dropping like flies, we become inured and start rooting for these teens to slaughter one another or be bumped off by extenuating circumstances, so that surrounding events can be propelled forward, edging our heroes one step closer to the winner’s circle.

The Hunger Games’ at least tries not to glorify the violence or ratchet it up to fever pitch the way a director like Ridley Scott does in movies like Gladiator and Robin Hood. While probably deserving of a rating more severe than the one the MPAA slapped on it, there’s nothing truly gratuitous about the extreme violence depicted here (far more of which is suggested than shown) since it’s integral to the plot. Each death is intended to jolt the audience more than usual because of the tender age bracket of the participants. But while the filmmakers are pointing an accusing finger at us for watching, making us a complicit accomplice with that desensitized audience likewise following the game so avidly onscreen, the deeper irony seems to escape them. By assembling this movie, they are themselves promoting the same sort of violence as spectator sport they’re damning the network programmers for doing with the televised games. That the blood lettings are staged rather than real seems like an afterthought when the excellent editing is intended to whip moviegoers into a frothing, betting frenzy of their own, concerning who shall live and who shall die. Game on.

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