Director Gary Ross brings Suzanne Collins’ book to the big screen with Hollywood starlet Jennifer Lawrence leading the line as a teen doing battle in The Hunger Games
Gary Ross’ 2012 film The Hunger Games is based on Suzanne Collins’ book-of-the-same name about a fight-to-the-death contest featuring only children. Set in a dystopian future where North America’s newly named Panem nation is governed by the wealthy Capitol, twelve districts, each producing key resources for the controlling city, must randomly pick a boy and girl to compete in the televised “Hunger Games”.
After Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) younger, inexperienced sister Primrose is picked to represent her district at the next games, she volunteers, saving Primrose from almost certain death. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a baker with a crush on Katniss, is chosen as the male representative. Prior to doing battle in a huge auditorium made to look like a forest, Katniss and Peeta are mentored by the perennially drunk previous winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). He warns them of the career “tributes” who usually win, children from Districts 1 and 2 who spend years training for the chance to appear in the games.
Katniss, along with the other contenders, carries out tests to determine her chances of winning. Her survival skills and ability to hunt with a bow and arrow, something she had to master in the harsh, poverty-stricken District 12, impresses the judging panel who award her the highest score of all contenders. Meanwhile, she appears in a series of publicity initiatives catered to fuel public fervour for the event in which her personal stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) encourages her to win over the crowd. This becomes important as contenders can garner support in the form of sponsors who can help with much needed food, medicine and weapons.
Twenty-four children enter the “Hunger Games” but only one can be the winner. Participation is billed as an honour but really it is a way of satisfying the demands of sensationalist media where reality television has progressed to its logical conclusion. When reality has been pillaged for its sex scandals, backstabbing, cheating, and any other immoral human trait that can be hung alongside lucrative commercial contracts, there will be only one thing left: torture and death.
That’s the most interesting underlying concept in The Hunger Games. Despite its futuristic styling there’s an authenticity to proceedings. I could quite easily imagine – as macabre as this sounds – the mass killing of children in a faux-gladiatorial face-off being broadcast live to a nation gleefully making celebrities out of the dead. Heck, death and destruction are already headline news. It makes the film a prescient reminder of how our media diet satisfies us, and how, in order to continue doing so, the media will be forced to seek new ways to keep feeding that appetite.
When does the moral compass begin to break its bearings and allow for such barbaric events? In The Hunger Games, the game is seen as punishment for a failed uprising by the now defunct District 13, with the ruling class drawing gratification for this annual cull. That it involves the children of the outlying districts seems to make it even more enchanting. Some districts seem to grasp the honour concept, championing the competition and preparing children for possible representation. This is in stark contrast to Katniss’ poorer home where the yearly lottery for new blood is feared. There is no preparation, only the unsubstantiated assurance of hope that it isn’t their name pulled from the hat. What is revealed is a world where the rich live in opulence and rule with an iron fist. The majority work for very little to serve the wealthy, living outside the Capitol in conditions of poverty. The games, effectively, become the only chance of escape; of fortune and notoriety. For the ruling class, the games are the pinnacle of their media diet, satisfying a carnal need for human destruction while simultaneously offering reassurance of their power and place in society.
Director Gary Ross is on hand to bring these concepts together into a cohesive action-adventure. I particularly liked Katniss’ growth to “hero” in the eyes of both audiences within the film and us outside of it. Jennifer Lawrence is ideally cast in the central role and delivers a strong performance that mixes nubile sensuality with tigerish survival skills. Although the film draws from a number of sources – most obviously films such as The Running Man, Battle Royale, The Truman Show, and to a certain extend, Gladiator – the world in which it is set is both an engrossing depiction of a dystopian future, and one that is seamlessly (and extravagantly) realised.
However, the PG-13 violence does have its drawbacks. By not showing the true horror of the carnage the film finds itself in an indistinct grey area – it is neither here nor there. By cutting away from a sword decapitating a competitor, the director shields us from the grotesque to leave the imagination to fill in the blanks. In doing so we are desensitised to the violence, just as the wealthy inhabitants of Panem are, because we are not privy to the bloody conclusion. It waters down the sacrifices made in winning this competition, acts that ultimately require a child to become a murderous killing machine for the kicks of over-privileged adults. It is something Ross couldn’t get around given the commercial potential of the franchise (and therefore the need to attract the widest possible audience). He could have decided to make a video nasty, unworthy of the multiplex and destined for a bargain bin at the end of a supermarket’s frozen food aisle, but that would have seen him swiftly removed from the helm. So there’s an uneasiness about The Hunger Games’ inherent violence and the way it shields us from the real guts and gore because it goes to great lengths to remind us of our fascination with it.
A little surprisingly romance emerges from the carnage. However, it does seem to work. It has a sense of trying too hard to appeal to a certain type of audience (namely, the teenage crowd needing their fix after the ending of the Twilight saga), and is lightweight and a bit uneven but I felt it was smartly woven into the fabric of the story.
Yet, as a battle for survival, The Hunger Games is a winner. Led by Lawrence under the confident direction of Ross, the film is a visually attractive, fast-paced action-thriller that will no doubt appeal to the widest possible audience.