The Hunger Games is based on the first of a trilogy of young adult novels written by Suzanne Collins and has some very devoted fans of all ages. As one would expect, opinions vary about whether the movie has done justice to the written work. It seems most fans of the books are pleased with the film, however some feel necessary detail was lost. Other readers felt those same details made the written work drag so the story was in fact told more effectively in the film. I have not read the novels so can only comment on my experience of the film and the story told in this context.
It begins by immersing us in the world of Katniss, who lives with her mother and younger sister Primrose in impoverished District 12. Here people exist hand to mouth and in constant fear of Peacekeepers who enforce the iron rule of the Capitol. This is a time far in the future where new and amazing technologies exist for those lucky enough to live in the Capitol, but life in the Districts is hard, basic and rudimentary. They slave sourcing raw materials, while barely able to feed their families. Katniss’ skill with a bow and arrow in the forbidden zone of the forest helps them get by, but such unlawful behaviour is carried out at great risk, like feudal England where serfs starved but hunting in the king’s forest was a crime met with serious consequences.
An even more chilling terror than that of the Peacekeepers is the fear of being chosen in the annual Reaping to take part in the Hunger Games. Every person of a District between the ages of 12 and 18 is put into a ballot selecting one male and one female ‘tribute’ to the mighty Capitol. The games are a reality TV sensation somewhere between ‘Survivor’ and the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome, for the entertainment of the ruling class. There are 12 districts, so 24 competitors in all. It is almost certain death – to win you must survive while the other 23 tributes die. The sole survivor gains fame, fortune and public adoration, so there are volunteers from the Capitol who participate with an intense self-belief, fuelled by the many resources they have at their disposal to train into readiness and almost certain victory.
This film is largely a hypothetical exploration of class and society framed within the experience of young people being thrust into an unjust, terrifying world and having their moral mettle tested. For me, the first and most lasting impact of the film was the dread of being chosen; it forms the crux of many of the ideas underpinning the story. There is such an enormous tension built around the process of the reaping. You can imagine the potential tributes feverishly swinging between thinking ‘please don’t let it be me’ and ‘what if it is me?’ Then, the enormous guilt and relief when they’re not chosen or the numb horror of realising this terrible thing is in fact happening, the nightmare is real.
This plunges the story into two fundamental questions: what individual responsibility do members of a society have to each other and, as a maturing individual, how do you deal with the terror of facing a seemingly impossible battle on your own? What values must you stand by to remain true to your humanity and what do you take with you as comfort in times of terrible fear and darkness?
These questions are played out by contrasting the character of Katniss, and her District 12 co-tribute, Peeta, with the citizens of the Capitol. Katniss is quietly strong and resourceful because she has to be, unsentimental but deeply caring, and will help another even at great risk to herself. Her ethics are an instinct; she doesn’t have to stop to consider what is wrong or right, there is a sense that she knows this reflexively.
Most of the people of the Capitol seem extremely superficial, pampered and live totally without fear of hardship or even illness. They love the Games which are a time of great celebration and never really trouble themselves with thoughts of what the players are put through, let alone about the conditions they live in back in the Districts. It’s OK because it’s not happening to them, they are safe. For the ruling class, the Games function as a social control.
This contrast made me think about the discussions around public versus private education in our world and the slippery slope this represents. There is a parallel between the District kids versus the Capitol kids in the film and the public/private education debate. The District tributes hardly stand a chance against the Capitol Career tributes who have been coached their whole lives for winning. However, the District tributes’ enforced resourcefulness and real-life skills give them a chance of success. As epitomised by Katniss, they have to not allow themselves to mentally lose the battle first by giving up all hope; they have to believe enough in themselves to put up a good fight.
The film is a representation of class division to the extreme and again it hinges on this question of being chosen. The only real difference between the citizens of the Capitol and the Districts is where they were fortunate or unfortunate enough to be born. Fundamentally it’s about that age old saying of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; is it still OK when it is happening to you? Or to your child? What about your neighbour or even someone from the same town? Where do you draw the line and separate your well-being from the well-being of others? In this sense the film is like a lesson for young people in ethics 101, but because it was so visually engaging and because there was enough food for thought, its appeal will stretch to a broad audience.
The film doesn’t pull any punches or soften the harsh horror of this future world. The violence is deftly handled with excellent camera work and direction. The camera angles and distance to the action are just right, giving you a very clear sensation of the brutality without being overwhelming. In some ways this suggestiveness makes more of an impact than excessive in-your-face violence. There are nice touches with quiet scenes that effectively build up tension – for example, Katniss waiting to go up into the playing field, her nerves so tangible, you feel that you are in that room waiting with her. The first scene of battle and its aftermath works very well and sets the tone for the action to come.
The camera largely sticks to Katniss as she navigates her way around the terrain, occasionally panning out, but mostly giving the sensation that you are right there beside her, or you are her – tearing through the forest, tumbling down a slope, turning a corner and abruptly colliding with another player knocking the wind out of you. It’s all skilfully done. Part of this is also achieved through the soundtrack. There is little if any music, rather you hear things like her breath or the crunching of the ground underfoot. This adds to the realness and presence of the characters.
I’m a great fan of Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss. I loved her in Winter’s Bone where she played a character with many parallels to this one – the older sibling driven to care for her family and subsequently mature for her years. A lot of the message of this film rests on her portrayal. She will play the game because there is no other option, but she will not give up the core of herself or her values. I think this is a powerful premise to share with a YA audience – if you want to change things sometimes you have to learn the rules of the game first, even if they are blatantly unjust, but not lose yourself in the process. This lesson is driven home to Katniss by Peeta and is something they take to the very end of the Games. In this way at least she is sure to have a moral victory of sorts and we see that this is something to hang onto even when the outcome seems grim. Katniss instinctively knows that comfort in times of real darkness comes from the connections we have with each other.
If there is one criticism I have of the film it is that throughout there are hints of the broader political context outside the game and once the game is over, the ending seemed a little abrupt. There could have been a few minutes spent on tying in these threads to build the context for the next story and make this one a little more complete. However overall it was enjoyable, visually seamless and thought-provoking.
Bio: Halinka Orszulok is a Kung Fu fighter and painter from the Illawarra region of NSW, Australia. She has a Masters Degree in Visual Arts from SCA. You can see her work at www.halinka.com.au