Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)
WARNING: MAY THE SPOILERS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR
Why didn’t anyone tell me “The Hunger Games” was a sequel to “Winter’s Bone”?
Jennifer Lawrence is once again playing a tough girl acting as mother to a younger sibling in an Ozarks-like land of poverty and muted colors, where she has to risk everything, particularly herself, to ensure her younger sibling’s survival. It’s a dystopian future rather than our dystopian present, but otherwise it’s “Winter’s Bone” all over. J-Law has a right to wonder: Where the hell are the moms in my movies? Do I have to do fucking everything?
She plays Katniss Everdeen, elder sister to Primrose (Willow Shields), whom she comforts from nightmares, and to whom she sings lullabies, before sneaking into the woods to hunt for food. She’s a whiz with a bow-and-arrow and has a deer in her sights when guy-pal Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) shows up to commiserate, flirt, and above all scatter the deer. This is supposed to be a brutal world, kill or be killed, but the filmmakers want to keep Katniss as sympathetic as possible, and you don’t do that by shooting Bambi’s mom. Too bad. I was intrigued for a moment. Are they gonna...? No. They’re gonna fudge it.
Psst. They fudge it for most of the movie.
Katniss and Primrose live in the 12th of 12 districts surrounding a glitzy metropolis, where, every year, each district holds a lottery to choose two tributes, a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to battle to the death in the nationally televised “Hunger Games.” Twenty-four kids go into the woods, one comes out, and everyone watches on big-screen TVs in the public square. Apparently no one can afford their own TVs anymore. Apparently the authorities think it’s safer to gather the masses into a mass, where, you know, they might rebel.
Why “The Hunger Games” in the first place? We get an inkling in a conversation between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the show’s producer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley):
Snow: Seneca, why do you think we have a winner?
Seneca: What do you mean?
Snow: I mean, why do we have a winner?
Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.
Snow: So ... contain it.
The “it” that needs containing is, of course, Katniss.
This is the first year Primrose is eligible for the Games—thus the nightmares—and, oops, she’s chosen. Distraught, Katniss volunteers in her place. The second D-12 tribute isn’t Gale, thank God, but Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a local baker boy, whose name I assumed was “Peter” throughout; and off they go, by train, to the Capitol, where everyone dresses in bizarre Tim Burton/“Wizard of Oz” fashions: teeny hats and curlicue beards and excessive makeup. It drives home the phoniness and effeminacy of the Capitol’s inhabitants. They’re the Haves. Have Nots? Dance.
In the Capitol, mentors are assigned—including, for Peeta and Katniss, former District 12 winner, and current drunk, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The tributes are then trained, primped for the crowds, and made to compete for “sponsorships” that might aid them in time of need.
All tributes aren’t created equal, by the way. Tributes from Districts 1 and 2, including Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Marvel (Jack Quaid) and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), have trained for this since birth. They’re the Cold-War Eastern Europeans in the Olympics but they act like asshole rich kids in any high school movie. They’re Socs. They’re Cobra Kai: tall, white, good-looking, and deadly, and they develop alliances a la “Survivor”: banding together to take out the weak kids. What kind of strategy is that? Shouldn’t a strong tribute form alliances with weaker tributes to take out real potential rivals? Instead, Cato roams the woods, cocky and bullying, as if he can trust Marvel and Clove standing behind him with knives in their hands.
As for our heroine? Once the games begin, it’s the deer all over again. She kills only in self-defense, and only those who deserve killing. She bonds with an adorable 12-year-old girl, Rue (Amanda Stenberg), who has no chance, and who is killed with a spear by one of the Cobra Kai. She bonds with Peeta, who is injured, and nurses him back to health. Here’s how my 10-year-old nephew Jordy put it in his review:
You will care for the characters that the movie wants you to care about, and you will hate the characters that the movie wants you to hate.
That sentence describes almost everything Hollywood makes, but it’s particularly true, and particularly annoying, here. The characters don’t act as they should given the circumstances. They act for us, the audience, so we’ll either like them or hate them. They dance for us.
Watching awful people watching the story we’re watching
So what’s the meaning of all of this? Analogies abound.
There’s the reality-TV analogy, in which “The Hunger Games” is a deadlier version of “Survivor” or “Fear Factor,” and other people’s pain, or death, is aired for our entertainment. There’s the business analogy, in which, after training, 12-18 year-olds are set loose in the bigger world, where, as Bill Gates knows, there can be only one winner. There’s the 99% metaphor referenced above, in which the masses dance for the few. There’s even the Tea Party metaphor, in which the plain, honest folks of the country are controlled by the painted, effeminate fools of the city.
Of these, the reality-TV analogy is most obvious. It’s also the most problematic.
Before the Games, the tributes are interviewed by smarmy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, dressed as an Oompha-Loompa), who tells their stories to his TV audience. It’s similar to the way Bob Costas tells us, during the Olympics, that this athlete’s father is dying of cancer, and that one cared for her dying mother. It gives the audience rooting interests. Katniss’ heart-tugging story is obvious: she volunteered in place of her sister. Awwww. Peeta’s? That he’s actually in love with Katniss. Oooooo!
The reduction of the individual to a rootable storyline is presented as a form of phony manipulation and pageantry when the movie does the exact same thing. What Caesar Flickerman feeds to his audience is just slightly more reductive than what writer-director Gary Ross feeds to us. Both audiences lap it up. We just take ours with a extra dollop of hypocrisy. We watch a story about awful people watching the story we’re watching. How awful those people are.
I should add that the gender reversal is pretty interesting. The boy is all mushy love, the girl is all “meh”; and in the end the villain uses the boy as a hostage to bargain with the obviously stronger girl, who has him in her sights, bow drawn. J-Law makes it believable, too. Katniss is another Lisbeth Salander. Our strong, silent types are now girls.
But the movie fudges too much. I say this as someone who hasn’t read the books. I say this as someone who didn’t even know, going in, that “THG” was a trilogy. All I knew, from the trailer, was the stuff leading up to the start of the Games. So I wanted to know what most people want to know with a story: What happens next? I wanted to know if they could make what happens meaningful.
Early in the Games, Katniss travels far afield and waits things out. She’s safe. So the production folks create a forest fire to drive her back to the battle. They know how to deal with this contingency. But they’re completely flummoxed by a contestant who refuses to kill in cold blood? They never ran into that contingency? I don’t buy it. As a result—in part, as a sop for the audience, who supposedly likes the “star-crossed lovers” storyline—they change the rules in the middle of the game: two contestants are allowed to live. This is not only a cheat in their reality but a cheat in ours. Author Suzanne Collins’ and director Gary Ross may blame the rule change on the two-faced nature of producer Seneca Crane, with his munchkin beard, but I blame them. They couldn’t come up with a better ending.