[23 March 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Why do you think we have a winner?” asks President Snow (Donald Sutherland). He peers at Seneca (Wes Bentley), gamemaker for the Hunger Games, the wildly popular entertainment that’s in its 74th edition at the start of The Hunger Games. When Seneca can’t come up with an answer, Snow explains that, although it would be “easier” to keep the impoverished population in line by just rounding up and killing 24 victims each year, the Games pits these victims against one another as contestants. The Games offer hope, “the only thing stronger than fear,” Snow explains as he clips thorns off his white roses. “A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”
Even as Seneca furrows his brow, you know what Snow means. The idea is to distract the masses, to keep them entertained enough that they won’t protest the fact that they’re impoverished, that their labor sustains the powerful few, that they are the 99%. Seneca, who provides his own sort of labor—part Ryan Seacrest, part Simon Cowell, part J-Lo—is slow on this uptake. He might help to contain the spark, but more likely, he’ll be consumed by it.
The spark this time—as most everyone who’s going to see The Hunger Games already knows—is provided by the Girl on Fire, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). Hailing from District 12, the most impoverished of all, she’s elevated to a particular celebrity the moment she volunteers to participate in the Games, which—everyone already knows, whether or not you’ve read Suzanne Collins’ massively profitable YA trilogy—involves pitting pairs of players from 12 districts against each other over a couple of weeks of televised and humungously promoted competition. Called Tributes because they evince courage and sacrifice and other admirable qualities (even as they’re rounded up and forced into participation by Galactic-Empire-Stormtrooper-types called Peacekeepers), they’re reality TV players by way of The Most Dangerous Game, Battle Royale, and The Running Man, dying to divert the show’s fans. Like applicants to The Real World 25 season in, they know the rules, they know what they’re expected to do, and so they smile for cameras, wave at fans, and do their best not to die right away.
The winner, as Snow observes, survives, to be crowned and feted, exploited and then sent home, unless he or she decides, like former District 12 player Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), to train subsequent Tributes. Winning has its own costs, of course, rather sensationally demonstrated by Haymitch’s first scene: he’s drunk and grumpy and disinclined to think the new District 12 team—sullen Katniss and awkward Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)—have much of a chance. But in the two minutes it takes Haymitch to get on board, that is, to believe Katniss is awesome, this mightily derivative movie loses sight of its most compelling point, that the Hunger Games, inspired by Collins’ realization that TV desensitizes viewers, are brutally commercial.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t mention the commercial aspect (“What if everyone stopped watching?”, muses Katniss’ soulmate Gale [Liam Hemsworth], “No one watches, they don’t have a game”), or that it ignores the Games’ essential violence, as several Tributes die in bloody, hectically composed and fast-cut sequences. But the movie focuses more intently on Katniss’ ingenuity and heroism, not to mention her rage at her mother (Paula Malcomson), who shut down after her husband died in a coalmine explosion (rendered in sepia-toned-ish flashback) and so left Katniss to raise her sister (this plot point recalls the more complex and compelling Winter’s Bone, which does The Hunger Games no favors). Leaving behind her worldweary mother and blond sister (Willow Shields), Katniss is fierce, exhorting her mom, “You have to be there for her!”
If you can understand Katniss’ fury, the movie makes the dynamic here too simple. The traumatized mother has failed her daughters, and The Hunger Games doesn’t sort out how this might have happened. Instead, it lurches into Katniss’ adventure, also traumatizing, but on the movie’s TV and in the movie, it’s a means to her triumph. For her part, Katniss thinks she might have a chance to win because she’s been hunting squirrels to feed her family and, as she puts it to Gale, “I am smart, you know.” She has reason to think intelligence is an asset, as most everyone in the big city where the Games are produced (the studio simulates a woodsy terrain, wildfires, and beasts to attack contestants on cue) is manifestly stupid: here rich people are gaudily costumed and painted (Effie Trinket [Elizabeth Banks] is especially pink), contestants are made over for public consumption (as in The Wizard of Oz), and the Games are rigged to allow the Aryan-looking doltish bullies from wealthier districts to win.
Katniss embodies all that’s better, being aptly appalled at what she sees while learning to manipulate her audience. Her (street?) credibility is underscored by the respect she earns from film’s few black characters, her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the very good fighter from District 11, Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi), and the much younger and especially adorable girl Tribute from 11, Rue (Amandla Stenberg). Katniss’ alignment with the District 11 Tributes translates late in the show to a connection with the district, whose members become enraged and inspired by a salute that Katniss flashes at the camera she knows is on her. Finally infuriated to the point of action, this demographic—largely black—riots.
It’s a striking moment in the film, which tends to do the easy thing, to celebrate the winner Katniss and demonize the white bullies she beats in order to win. As this crowd tears down the equipment used to tape their responses to what’s on screen, you see what a revolution, against the machinery that oppresses them, the machinery of TV, might look like. When the Peacekeepers arrive to subdue everyone and this scene gives way to more heroics by Katniss, you’re left wondering if there’s another, less regular way to represent the problem the movie acknowledges before it replicates it.