Long Take: The Hunger Games Panders to a Built-In Audience and Squanders Its Narrative Potential

Viewed September 21, 2012

For months leading up to its March 2012 release, The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) was billed as the next franchise based on a series of young adult novels set to break box office records, and it delivered. I stayed clear of the theater when it came out because news reports on TV showed the books’ fans camping out days ahead of time, and I will do pretty much anything to avoid a crowd. When I finally learned the premise (children and teens from “districts” all over a future dystopian North American nation are ritually forced to fight each other to the death in an annual televised event), I quickly identified the parallels with the once-banned Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000). One Saturday, my dad came home from services at shul and related that his young rabbi used The Hunger Games and a crucial plot twist from the third act to make a point in his sermon (my dad told me what it was). The film effectively spoiled, I took my time seeking it out, which I only did because, as a film historian, I am interested in what people watch. Having now seen it, I can tell you that The Hunger Games was made with only its built-in audience of fanatical readers in mind: the teenagers and their parents as well as the child-free adults under 40 who never encountered a pop culture trend they didn’t like (see Fifty Shades of Grey for more proof). I can’t comment on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, having never even read a single sentence from any of the novels, but isn’t it telling that as one of the screenwriters, the author allows co-writer-director Gary Ross to water down the disturbing conceit with a boring and self-conscious indictment of our popular culture that I’m not sure any of the rabid fans fully understands? As always, there be spoilers ahead.

Sometime in the distant future, an oppressive government in Panem institutes a sacrificial blood-letting of Olympic proportions: as penance for a past rebellion, one boy and one girl from each of the nation’s twelve districts is chosen from a lottery (called a “Reaping” and, per my dad, resembling the Nazis’ rounding up of European Jews) to train and compete in the eponymous competition. The film begins as the 74th Hunger Games get underway. Our heroine who’s handy with a bow and arrow, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), lives with her good-for-nothing mother (Paula Malcolmson) and darling younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) in the impoverished District 12. A mining and milling community with sanitation systems straight from the 19th century and simple, drab clothing that contrasts sharply with the out-there fashions of other Panem citizens, District 12 brings abject Appalachia to mind (these scenes were shot in North Carolina). At the Reaping, Primrose’s name is called in what amounts to an interminable, super-serious scene that ends in Katniss becoming the first-ever voluntary participant. Like the actress’s character in Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), for which Lawrence received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Katniss is a teenage survivor who lives and is willing to die for her sister. Yes, of course, the scene is appropriately dour, but it tries too hard, what with the cartoonish appearance and overly enthusiastic pronouncements of emcee Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the audience’s failure to applaud for the Capitol-produced introductory propaganda video or the selection of Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Katniss and Peeta are whisked away to the Capitol for the Games, and that’s ostensibly where the action begins, only it actually stalls.

While screening the movie on DVD, I wrote in my notes (in all caps, mind) that The Hunger Games is “indulgent”: “It takes its time [introducing characters and situations] because the filmmakers know their built-in audience has memorized everything in the book and wants to savor these characters and scenes” as much as possible. Hence Haymitch Abernathy’s (Woody Harrelson) languorous introduction as the teens’ reluctant mentor (he’s a cynical drunk who thinks neither one has got what it takes to survive and win). So much of the scene that revolves around Haymitch, on the high-speed train ride from District 12 to the Capitol, does just that: it revolves around and barely includes him. Katniss and Peeta scrutinize his character and debate whether or not they should trust his guidance, occasionally allowing a somewhat flamboyant Harrelson to participate. To me, this is storytelling as clumsy and lazy as Ross’s shooting Katniss’s earlier hunt for deer meat is cliched (with a rough, jump cut-laden, shaky documentary style). In other words, Ross proves he is not an inspired director of action (remember, he previously directed the wholesome and straight-forward Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, from 1998 and 2003 respectively).

Effie, Haymitch, and Katniss look as bored as I was while watching their movie. Not much happens in the first hour or so. Image courtesy of http://www.collider.com.

The indulgence in establishing Haymitch carries over to other characters, only their purposes remain enigmatic for the uninitiated. For example, who exactly is Effie Trinket and what does she do, other than wear grotesque 1940s-inspired skirt suits? Introduced as a villain at the Reaping, she appears to be part of District 12’s trusted team. But there is no explanation or demonstration as to why or how she can make this transition. Moreover, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) doesn’t have a clearly defined role, either. I assume that he’s merely a stylist, choosing for Katniss dresses that shoot fiery flames out of their skirts (so that she comes across as both dangerous and, well, hot). Apparently, Kravitz’s casting in this part angered many die-hard fans of the books, because he doesn’t physically conform to the Cinna of their imaginations. Meaning: they were disappointed that Cinna is played by a black man. Since Cinna is given so little to do, I don’t understand how anyone could get upset by that. If anything, the filmmakers should have cast someone who can act. Of course, one solution to this problem (that Cinna needn’t have even appeared in the film), however, is impossible: Cinna, in order to appease the fans, just has to be there.

Speaking of dresses that “light” up, let’s discuss the schizophrenic production and costume designs. As I previously mentioned, District 12 is so depressed as to be imprisoned in another century. When Effie, so far the only blatant anachronism in District 12, escorts Katniss and Peeta onto the bullet train, we ogle the 1930s interior design of the space, which coincidentally is one of the best sets. Side note: it is telling that they don’t fly to the Capitol, for the train is historically a potent symbol for modernity. Unsurprisingly, it literally transports them to another era. And what do we find at the Capitol upon arrival? As you peer through the poor visual effects, trying to make sense of the setting, you glimpse traces of Washington, DC (there’s a Mall with a reflecting pool) and vaguely neo-classical postmodern architecture. Honestly, it looks like a fascistic version of any and all representations of the mythic underwater civilization Atlantis (and maybe the Bahamian resort, too). The hordes of people gathered to watch live TV interviews are clearly dressed to go to a rave, decked out as they are with neon-colored clothes and hairstyles. There may have been glow sticks, I can’t be sure. One of the Games commentators/TV interviewers, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), wears glittery suits and purple hair pulled up into a ponytail. Since everyone looks utterly ridiculous (and has an incredibly stupid name), it’s difficult to take the proceedings seriously, and the routinely oppressed’s struggle isn’t all that palpable. The filmmakers exaggerate both the built environment and the “bizarre” fashions of Panem’s citizens so as to link the inauthenticity of this world to our own celebrity-obsessed and reality TV-centric culture. From an intellectual standpoint, I get it. But as it is executed, it comes across as pained, heavy-handed, and too self-conscious. As if to say, Just look at how horrible these people are. You know, we’re not that much different… There’s nothing wrong with this message, but I’m afraid that because it is so over-the-top yet matter-of-fact, it produces a lot of noise and very little contemplation in the pandered-to viewer.

The Hunger Games being gladiatorial bloodsport, it makes sense that each district’s team rides in on the back of chariots here, in this fascistic square, their long procession resembling the parade of nations that is part of the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics. Image courtesy of http://www.mtv.com.

Despite the book being billed as a treatise on the horrific violence of war, which we send our innocent children to fight in the spirit of freedom (talk about a paradox), the film only spends the last hour or so of the 142-minute running time depicting the Games. (Collins is often reported as saying that the juxtaposition of TV channels showcasing young people alternately competing on a reality TV show or fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired the story.) Instead, so much of it is devoted to the players’ Reaping, training, gaining of sponsorships (I still don’t understand how they work), and winning the audience’s favor. Again, Collins, Ross, and co. highlight how unreal (our) reality TV is through Haymitch’s packaging Katniss and Peeta as star-crossed lovers for the media, especially as we learn about it the same way that Katniss does: watching Peeta confess to Casear Flickerman that winning the Games would be a bittersweet victory. For surviving would mean that his crush would have to have died. For much of the film, they can barely tolerate each other. Katniss holds a grudge against Peeta because he once threw a loaf of bread into the mud as she sat starved nearby in the rain. He resents that she’s a more highly ranked player (scoring 11 out of ten points) and that everyone pays more attention to her. Despite their differences, they support each other during the Battle in the Woods, and in the end, they perform their roles as younger lovers for the pervasive cameras. It’s just, are they only keeping up appearances or do they fall for it, too? It’s an interesting idea, but the filmmakers expend no energy in developing it except in the second-to-last scene when they both enjoy a hero’s welcome (I’ll get to how that’s possible in a moment) and she finds her friend/boyfriend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), out in the crowd. The expression on her face reads: “Oh shit, I forgot about him.” (And it’s easy to see why: this character consists of so little, he only watches the soap opera that is Katniss and Peeta’s romance unfold on TV and thus exists to make it harder for Katniss and Peeta to really become lovers.)

The movie’s PG-13 rating is really no indication that The Hunger Games tones down the violence implicit in its central conceit. Besides, similarly rated films with graphic displays of violence also get past the censors at the MPAA (language and sexuality are the real sticking points, and that’s a discussion for another time). I don’t seek out film reviews, but since his write-up was sent to my inbox as part of a daily roundup of entertainment news articles that I subscribe to, I read David Edelstein’s, originally published in New York. Horrified that the on-screen carnage of kids killing kids didn’t visibly “devastate” the hungry audience of which he was a part, Edelstein attacks director Gary Ross for framing the children’s inevitable deaths with “restraint” and “tastefulness” (as if that’s commendable!), which according to him, Ross has been praised for doing. I agree with Edelstein to an extent (the editing is fast and uncontemplative), but I still found the brutality of the participants profoundly unsettling: like, for instance, the way one girl shoots Katniss’s attacker in the back with a bow and arrow from far away, not out of solidarity but because killing him is merely a means to an end (killing Katniss).

More than this, The Hunger Games falls short of producing an effective commentary on war. The filmmakers fail to develop any of the Games participants other than Katniss and Peeta (with the lone exception of Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg, who comes to Katniss’s aid in the beginning before being snuffed out herself). And since we can’t even grieve for the fallen children-soldiers, you might ask, What is the point? Really, all we’re capable of, in Edelstein’s words, is this: “When a child dies, we breathe a sigh of relief that the good guys have one less adversary, but we rarely go, ‘Yes!‘” The greatest missed opportunity in this regard involves the character Cato (Alexander Ludwig), who scowls at everyone during training and basks in the glory he has inherited from previous champions who overwhelmingly hail from his District (1). Cato has been gearing up for the event seemingly all his life, and in the end, before he falls back onto the ground to be ravaged by demonic dog-like creatures, he hints to the spectator that he has a form of post-traumatic stress disorder as he indignantly whines, “Killing is all I know!” So just before he falls, we can reflect that he’s been robbed of a proper childhood and is subsequently doomed. The worst of it all is that this is the full extent of the filmmakers’ engagement with the subject of how being trained or programmed to kill has wrecked their psyches. Pitiful.

Katniss doesn’t bury Rue, her sister/daughter surrogate, but she gives her the only funeral any of the children can hope to receive. Image courtesy of http://www.mockingjay.net.

But of course they’re doomed. That’s the exact point of this exercise and the dramatic irony of the oft-spoken motto, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Because beyond manipulating diegetic viewers’ emotions with stories about Katniss’s sacrificing herself to protect her sister or Peeta’s heretofore unconfessed love for Katniss, the producer of the Games, Seneca Crane (played by Wes Bentley), influences the actions of the participants as if he were a film director (he certainly carries himself like Michael Bay). When Katniss hides out in an unpopulated corner of the playing field, he burns it down so that she runs toward those who are out to get her. The dogs that eat up Cato spontaneously appear thanks to Seneca’s puppet-mastering; he wants to up the tension and kill off Katniss if he can. Most of all, he approves of an explicit rule-change after riots break out in the predominantly black District 2 following Rue’s (televised) death: two people can win the Games so long as they are on the same team. He later rescinds the offer once Katniss and Peeta are the only ones left standing. And here’s where my dad’s rabbi supposedly spoiled the plot: the so-called lovers vow to take their lives rather than follow the renewed rules of the old game. Fearing more reprisals, Seneca allows them to be dually victorious. The scenes which demonstrate how Man has overtaken Nature through computer programming and how Katniss and Peeta repeatedly challenge the rule of law at the Games are of a piece with the central message of The Hunger Games and probably constitute its finest expression: re-evaluate the truthfulness of “reality TV.”

One of the greatest unresolved mysteries of the film is the prize that the winner(s) receive(s). Obviously, living to see another day is rewarding in and of itself, but what do they gain otherwise? Fame? Fortune? At the victory ceremony held at the Capitol, the president of the totalitarian regime, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), crowns Katniss, thereby complementing the beauty pageant-like interviews she endured earlier in the picture before the Fight to the Death commenced. Paradoxically, when she returns to District 12 triumphant, she doesn’t reunite with Primrose. (Instead, we see her look out onto Gale, confused.) As a melodrama studies scholar, I couldn’t believe that the filmmakers failed to include such a scene. If we can’t see Primrose embrace her virtuous older sister and perennial protector, then what is the point of her sacrifice anyway? Everyone, including Primrose, knows what is at stake.

This brings me to my final point. Much has been made about Katniss Everdeen as a feminist icon. Writing of the novels, Lauren Osborn of the online zine Vagina claims that, “Katniss—as a fiercely independent, loyal, and capable young woman—stands as a symbol of feminism in modern literature.” I guess she would if your only point of comparison is Bella Swan from the Twilight YA series. In her examination of this year’s female film characters (women and girls alike), Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday praises The Hunger Games for being one of the satisfying “girl-powered fantasies” to come out recently (on the other hand, she’s disappointed that adult women are not represented as strong or compelling as their younger female counterparts). In my opinion, Katniss isn’t so much a feminist warrior as she is an amalgamation of different idealized femininities. She’s maternal, as she volunteers for the Games to spare her sister from a 100% certain death and mourns the younger Rue. (Later, Rue’s District 2 partner Thresh, played by Dayo Okeniyi, stops short of killing Katniss out of respect for her honoring Rue in death.) Despite her attitude toward the government and the Games, which she thinks makes her totally unlikable, Katniss wins over everyone because of her beauty. That flame-throwing dress works wonders. And if you think her skill with a bow and arrow makes her decidedly unfeminine, think again: she’s an archetypal Amazonian. Romance may not be a priority for Katniss, as Osborn argues, but she is nevertheless at the center of a love triangle, and neither suitor deserves her. Such is always the case.

I couldn’t find an adequate photo of Katniss in her flaming dress, so please pardon the text, though it does say it all, doesn’t it? Image courtesy of http://www.theapod.com.

I give the filmmakers credit for not belaboring how The Hunger Games continues into the sequel Catching Fire. (I swear, everyone is in a tizzy about who will direct it and who will play additional characters with unbelievably ridiculous names.) The scene of Katniss and Peeta’s heroes’ welcome is cut between Seneca’s forced suicide (punishment for having failed to keep the Games under control) and President Snow’s sorrowful glance down on the Capitol from a balcony on high. The film fades to black after he turns his back and steps into the building, subtly portending his downfall. I don’t know much about the other two novels, but I assume that Katniss will lead a revolution against Snow’s highly structured Reign of Terror. Perhaps future installments will be more action-packed and ultimately less boring. Perhaps there will be more to the characters’ social interactions besides a “will-they-or-won’t-they” storyline, preferably along the lines of race and class, which The Hunger Games sets up but barely engages. What I’m saying is, perhaps viewers who have not read the books will be given a reason to give a damn. But I’m not holding my breath.

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