…"The Hunger Games," to see what all the fuss was about.
I did not read the Suzanne Collins novel the film is based on, and now that I have seen the film, I am not very motivated to read any of the trilogy.
I knew some things going into this film, such as the book was aimed at a young/tween audience (as is the film), there was some controversy about the violence, and that it takes place in a dystopian future a hundred plus years off. Okay, I can be on board with those things, I can work with that. Could be interesting...
But right from the beginning, I found myself on shaky ground. The film tosses off, on precious few title cards, an extremely brief explanation of how things got to be the way they are. Something something war, something uprising, kids fight to the death, something or other… and here we go. Okay, WHOA, slow the roll. Say what now?
But suddenly there I was in a future whose premise made absolutely no sense whatsoever. The mechanics of it all do get a little bit more fleshed out than that, but not by much. Apparently there was a citizen uprising many years ago, and in order to quell any such future uprisings, the fascistic government in power, once a year, takes a boy and a girl from each of the Dust-Bowl-poverty-stricken twelve districts of the nation (no longer called United States of America, but Panem), brings them to the ultra-wealthy Capitol, and drops them into a televised gladiator game to the death. SERIOUSLY.
Now, there are so many things wrong with this that I had trouble focusing on the film. I am aware that in literature for children and young adults, there is a great tradition of children and youngsters in the stories going it alone, fighting odds, doing heroic things, without the aid of adults, or often, despite the active hindrance of adults. It is to show children and young adults that they have power, that they can be brave and thoughtful and loyal, that they can figure things out too, to teach them a sense of independence. It is present in books for very young children, like the classic WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, where Max faces down a forest of untamed and ferocious animals. And then look at the HARRY POTTER series, for more advanced readers. The adults in the story, even the magical adults, are rather helpless, clueless, and stand by while Harry, Ron, and Hermione plow head long into one dangerous and literally life-threatening adventure after another. But the trio face evil itself in the bravest test of friendship and courage that could make adults shrink in fear. So yes, this theme is employed in literature for children and young adults. But creating a story where 12 to 18 year old young people are slaughtered by adults for their enjoyment oversteps the boundary of the established motif. I simply cannot imagine a culture, even a depraved and callous one, shrugging their shoulders and giving up young children to be tortured, stabbed, blown up, burned, and torn asunder by wild animals. The book, and of course by extension, the film posits that this is done by the government to prevent another uprising among the people. I cannot think of anything that would undoubtedly CAUSE an uprising more than to take helpless children and kill them. When “the people” have nothing left to lose, they will find a way to topple the regime. The fact that the population of this country has been sitting idly by for 74 years while this corporate-sponsored infanticide has been going on is bizarre. Now, I know some people would counter me with examples of the daily and systematic destruction of children around the world, in Africa, in the Middle East, even here in America, in Sandy Hook for example. And of course those things happen but they are not ritualized, glorified, held up as a “common good,” and broadcast as a “game” on television. I am fairly sure that such a culture, were it to exist, would not exist for long because, at its core, the psyche of that culture would be sick. It would not be able to sustain itself.
Okay, now that I have complained about the premise itself, it doesn’t change the fact that that is what the story is. From that point, I will say that the book, and again by extension the film has been touted as being a critique of government control and the cult of reality television, while commenting on issues of feminism, religion, poverty, and war. I saw nothing of that. Yes, it is true that the children are part of a reality television show for which they are groomed and trained like a twisted version of “The Voice” or “Dancing With The Stars.” And this particular game show results in the death of 23 contestants with only one winner. You’d think that would be a searing commentary on our current mindless culture of being voted off/ “Real Housewives of No-One-Really-Cares-Where”/”Big Brother” but it is not. If that is what the filmmakers were aiming for, they missed it, and not by “just-this-much” but by pretty far.
All in all, a mentally, emotionally, and spiritually frustrating experience. And I am sure, from what I have read, this is not a case of the film straying too far from the book (I understand that the violence was toned down for the film!). I can however separate out some worthwhile filmic elements such as acting (the kids—and some of the adults—did just fine with what they had to do), production design (which ranges from WPA Dorothea Lange photographic recreations to fascinating futuristic gadgets like holograms and mag-lev trains), and costumes (many of them outrageous hybrids of Louis XVI and Art Deco styles that reminded me a bit of Jean Paul Gaultier's work in "The Fifth Element"). Physically and visually well done. But that can’t shore up the gigantic holes in the rest of the fabric of the film.