...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games—three series that started off as simple children’s or “young adult” books and exploded into cultural obsessions that span the generation gap and cross media borders, sweeping up adults and taking the box office by storm with movie adaptations. Why are adults so drawn to these “kids’” stories? The books’ content is much more suited for older readers, as if written for them. The surprise, then, is that publishers continue to aim such material at kids and teens that is clearly more appropriate for adults and dangerous for the young.
That said, The Hunger Games film is perhaps among the least harmful and most redemptive of the recent pseudo-children’s fiction adaptations (with the earlier Harry Potter films as an arguable exception). While not at all a movie that children or even young teenagers should see, The Hunger Games is a highly-produced film that features a creative and compelling story. This tale is dark, containing a large amount of violence, minimal offensive language, and a few moments that reveal a slightly skewed sense of morality, but the thought-provoking film has much of importance to say about the state of our current culture and the frightful direction it is headed.
With striking relevance, The Hunger Games explores the dangers and horrifying destiny of “reality TV” and desensitization to, or even craving for, violence. While showing the evils, The Hunger Games also goes so far as to suggest a possible answer to such a dystopian culture, memorably portraying the struggle of good against evil in horrible times, as well as the power of love and one individual to change the world.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Panem, one’s quality of life depends very much on where one is born. There are twelve districts in the land, which dramatically vary in economic health. All the districts are controlled by the Capitol, and they each have a function (mining, farming, etc.), with a corresponding income level to match.
Katniss Everdeen is from the mining District 12, and, like all the people of her district, she is often on the brink of starvation. Perhaps better than others, she has learned how to survive by becoming a skilled hunter, expert with a bow and arrow. Cultivating her survival skills enables Katniss to keep her mother and younger sister, Prim, alive with food she manages to catch.
With a deceased father and a mother who doesn’t always have the energy or inclination to parent well, Katniss fills the mothering role with Prim and has the protective, loving, and nurturing instincts to match. Her job of protecting Prim, however, becomes much more difficult when Prim reaches twelve years of age.
Because of an established decree originally created to punish a rebellious people, the children in the land of Panem face terror once a year when there is a “Reaping” to take a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 from every district. These “tributes” are then taken to the Capitol, where they are forced to compete in the Hunger Games—an extended battle against each other, to the death.
Despite the horror of this yearly event, it is nationally televised and receives the publicity, media attention, and cultural following of the most popular sport or reality TV show of the twenty-first century. Even the citizens of District 12, Katniss included, enjoy or at least watch the show every year. But the Games are only entertaining for those who are not, at the moment, at risk of participating, or for the select, wealthy few from the premier districts who are trained from youth to win the competition.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss has never been selected and comforts the fearful Prim by ensuring her she wouldn’t be selected the first time her name is entered. [MINOR SPOILER WARNING] Katniss’s optimistic confidence is proven wrong, when Prim’s name is called out as the chosen for the Games. Katniss immediately offers herself up instead, volunteering to compete in her sister’s stead.
Thus begins Katniss’s terrifying journey to the Hunger Games. She is accompanied by Peeta Mellark as the male tribute from her district. The two have a complicated history with each other, which initially serves only to make the adjustment to their impending fates more difficult. They both receive coaching and celebrity treatment during the preparatory time before the games, a period during which the tributes try to attract the attention of sponsors, who will then provide them with needed survival supplies during the Games.
Katniss doesn’t know how to fake a persona for a camera or audience, but she receives help from the team assigned to instruct her in the initial stage. What no one prepares her for, however, are the unforeseen emotional challenges and obstacles she will face before and during the competition. Ultimately, the biggest challenge for Katniss may not be to stay alive, but rather to emerge the moral victor—a feat that will only be possible if she arms herself with enough love and compassion to fend off the terror of the Games.
Those who have only hearsay knowledge of The Hunger Games may rightly have chosen to avoid reading the books or seeing the film in theatres. The general concept of a story about kids and teens who kill each other in a publically-cheered “game” sounds like the devil’s idea of a blockbuster movie. Depraved views that are condoned do rear their ugly heads in this film from time to time, but to a lesser extent than one might expect. In addition, the negative content is offset by several redemptive, counter-cultural themes that not only stand out as unusual for secular media, but actually challenge contemporary society’s tastes and disintegrating mores.
Though far from perfect, Katniss stands as a contrast to other tributes in the competition because of her reluctance to kill others, even when her own life is on the line. While many of these tributes did not volunteer to be there and are forced to defend their lives, most of them react with a readiness to kill before they are killed. Katniss, on the other hand, distinguishes between her experience with hunting animals and the idea of killing humans, expressing a strong aversion for the latter and a clear understanding of the crucial difference.
The value that Katniss places on human life is highly significant in The Hunger Games, because the land of Penam has come to devalue life in every respect, with the Games serving as the most disgusting example of the culture’s moral devolution. Penam, as a whole, no longer sees even grotesque violence against the weakest members of their society, the children, as the unthinkable wrong that it is. Instead, such horrors are considered entertainment, at least to those on the outside looking in.
After all, the Games are an event that is integral to Penam’s history. It’s always been around and has become a bigger and more important occasion every year. Never mind that the Games center on watching children kill each other or die from artificially created environmental disasters that the Games “maker” puts into the contest whenever a tribute is being too boring (i.e., doing too well).
Reminiscent of the real-life, historical Gladiators and martyrdoms of Christians in public arenas for an audience’s “entertainment,” the Penam society’s craving for violence and devaluing of human life didn’t happen overnight. The Hunger Games draws a picture of the factors that have been growing alongside this punishment’s evolution into a popular showcase. Poverty, cruelty, classicism, oppression, and an expanding chasm between rich and poor are just some of the factors that have apparently influenced Penam’s “modern” attitudes.
But perhaps the strongest influencer, particularly in getting even the impoverished classes to accept and enjoy the Games, is the stroke of genius that led to highly publicizing and televising the events every year. This is the point at which Penam and our current culture become frighteningly similar and where the film makes its most brave and needful point—for the Games are essentially a reality show on the grandest scale.
As with all reality shows, the “reality” is only so-called, as such programs have little to do with true reality, other than striving to blend it so much with artificiality that audiences can either no longer tell the difference or no longer care what is real and what is not. When watching the media interviews conducted around the Games, the publicity maneuvers, the fabrications that Katniss and Peeta are encouraged to convince the public are true, the celebrities and parties attached to the Games, one cannot help but realize the similarity to the reality shows of our day.
As Katniss’s friend Gale describes it, viewers of such programs pick their favorite “characters” who are supposedly not actors and then cry when they lose—getting hurt physically or emotionally, in the case of the shows of this century, or, in The Hunger Games, dying. Through The Hunger Games, astute viewers encounter a sorely needed reality check for reality shows. Much of their content, this film poignantly demonstrates, is not at all real, but what is truthful is deadly.
Like the reality TV stars of our contemporary culture, Katniss and Peeta are in danger of getting pulled into the web of tangled lies, where they could become unsure of reality themselves. The opulent treatment that the tributes receive before the competition, as well as the cheers of adoring fans, also pose a risk that these two humble teens from a poor district might be learn to enjoy their new lifestyle too much. [SPOILER WARNING] While suspense is created by obscuring whether or not Katniss and Peeta are being negatively influenced by these factors through much of the film, they ultimately manage to hold on to the morals and priorities they had when they first came to the Games.
They are likely in greater peril of being changed for the worse by the violence they are forced to see and that they eventually commit themselves. While Katniss is obviously bothered by the thought of killing people, Peeta is matter-of-fact about the idea—saying that he’s sure he would kill someone in order to live, just like anyone else. To her credit, Katniss is more reluctant to kill and carries that reticence with her into the actual Games. Katniss isn’t the only tribute with such qualms. The trained fighters from the prominent districts are blood-thirsty and lethal, but others are more like Katniss—frightened youths who are hoping to find a way to survive without lifting a hand against others.
Thanks to Katniss’s dread of killing people, she is not responsible for most of the violence in this picture. There is one gruesome battle scene, in which there are dead bodies and blood aplenty, and several other tributes are shown later on after they are dead, sometimes with their bodies mangled from their type of death. With twenty-four tributes in the contest, there are many opportunities for death to be shown in various ways. While the filmmakers sometimes make an effort to avoid showing particularly gory deaths, much of the violence is still graphic in nature and is particularly disturbing because the victims and murderers are children and teens.
At the same time, the violence in this film is never taken lightly or condoned by the story itself. The characters who support and enjoy the barbarism are undeniably intended to represent a sick mindset and dystopian culture that is juxtaposed with the morality that the central characters and “heroes,” Katniss and Peeta, exemplify. [SPOILER WARNING] Yet, even Katniss does end the lives of two competitors—once in a reflex effort to defend a young girl she had befriended and once to end the suffering of a tribute who is being mauled to death.
[SPOILER WARNING] The latter killing poses the most problems and reveals the absence of a reliable moral compass to function as the story’s guide. The situation in which Katniss finds herself, witnessing the screaming, painful mauling of a teenage boy (viewers are spared gruesome details—only seeing the wild beasts and hearing the screams), is rare and difficult, to be sure, but Katniss’s mercy killing here is portrayed as a positive and right choice, rather than the unethical action that it truly is. Rightly applied, a more accurate set of morals would have led Katniss and Peeta to save this particular tribute’s life before this attack, which they had opportunity to do, or devise a way to save him during the incident.
[SPOILER WARNING] Another moral misstep occurs when both Katniss and Peeta appear to be willing to commit suicide rather than kill each other. This proposal may actually be a bluff to call out the game makers, but the suggestion that such an act is romantic and heroic is potentially lethal. A different character’s forced suicide is also intimated, though he is one of the antagonists whose death is ordered by another villain, and the suicide isn’t shown on screen.
An additional concern is the offensive language, though it is limited to a few uses of “d---“ and “oh, my g--," as well as at least one use of “h---.” While this and the other content issues are serious, they are counterbalanced by the film’s redemptive messages. Added to the aforementioned lessons on reality and violence are themes of love, loyalty, courage, and compassion. These values are not just given a nod or perfunctory pronouncement either. Rather, they are each powerfully demonstrated through characters’ actions throughout the film.
These positive messages are likely to have a lasting impact thanks to the top-notch filmmaking of The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games books, joins with director/writer Gary Ross, creating an artistic collaboration that garners impressive results. The script for this film reveals that these two writers have a firm grasp on the complexities of storytelling, as they manage to turn a rather fantastic plot idea into an extremely relatable, moving, and gripping tale that casts light on the dark side of humanity.
No slackers when it comes to action either, Collins and Ross handle the pacing of this film with excellence, using a slow build to heighten the tension of fast-paced action and suspense in the film’s latter half. As a result, this movie is a blend of genres that mixes the extensive character depth and development of a drama with the thrills of an action flick.
Highly-developed characters, as well as the overall story, are only as good as the actors who bring them to life. In this case, skilled writing is matched with equally proficient acting. Carrying the weight of the picture on her shoulders in the role of Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence is more than strong enough to bear the burden. Lawrence handles the nuances of this complex character well, leaving even the viewers to guess about the greatest mysteries of her quiet character, while still conveying the emotional core, vulnerability, fears, and bravery that make Katniss authentic and accessible. Lawrence’s only fault is that she is technically too old to play Katniss, who is supposed to be sixteen, but Lawrence’s obviously older age arguably suits this character, as Katniss is unusually mature for her years.
Josh Hutcherson as Peeta is also solid, while more experienced actors lend their impressive skills to smaller roles. The standout among these is Stanley Tucci, who gives an amusingly spot-on portrayal of a colorful host for the Games who interviews contestants before the contest. The realism of this and the other performances is additionally enhanced by the cinematography, which mixes rough grittiness with polished beauty and creates more layers through the use of symbolic imagery. The same balance and attention to thematic motifs is seen in the exceptional costume design, which explores a colorful and imaginative palate.
In the case of The Hunger Games, the high production quality is not wasted, but is well-applied to increase the impact of the film’s positive and challenging messages. Simultaneously, the violence is also rendered more harmful to watch because of the realism with which it is shown. For mature audiences, however, the thought-provoking ideas explored and proposed in this film may offset the negative content.
In the end, the most vital concern in watching this film may be the risk that viewers could too easily be sucked into the series and become committed to watching the next installments. Such a result would be hazardous since the next films will likely match the book series, which, in typical fashion for these recent literature fads, grows continuously darker and pushes its characters away from the moral roots that are more present at the story’s beginnings.
For now, viewers have only to apply their discernment to The Hunger Games, a film with problems, but also some surprisingly meaningful messages—not the least of which is the declaration that love and sacrifice burn with a bright enough light to illuminate even the darkest of worlds.