The Hunger Games (2012)
More years ago than I care to remember, I was a classical scholar and something of an expert in not only the languages but also the cultures of the Ancient World. Amongst other things, this meant a basic familiarity with the mythology. Theseus was caught up in the dispute between Athens and Crete. Androgeus, the son of King Minos, had been assassinated in Athens. The price of peace was that, every year, Athens sent seven young men and women to Crete as tribute to be fed to the Minotaur. Coming forward in time, here’s a science fiction novel and now film. Ostensibly, this is a young adult post-apocalypse dystopian novel by Suzanne Collins where one young man and woman from each of twelve Districts is sent to the Capitol to participate in a televised fight to the death. The Hunger Games (2012) is the first in a projected series with the second being in production thanks to the massive amount of money made by this film both in the cinema and through DVD sales.
This has all the usual faults of a piece of science fiction aimed at young adults. To begin to understand the extent of these problems, let’s meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). They like to hunt in the forest around their District’s living area, hence our heroine’s expertise with the bow — there’s no large game, only squirrels and other small mammals. We immediately note the poverty of those in District 12. Later, this is juxtaposed with the high civilisation of the Capitol. It’s always interesting in dystopian contexts, to speculate on how the distribution of wealth and privilege could become so skewed. If, as shown in the historical newsreel, there was a nuclear civil war in which the twelve satellite states turned on the central state, the major population centres would have been levelled. Indeed, with twelve states shooting at one, it’s hard to see how the one could survive at all. Anyway, if this is the old USA, why were only twelve states involved? What happened to all the rest?
Even if we accept this curiosity, why would the defeated survivors have agreed to rebuild only one? The idea that the defeated rebel states could have been coerced into this arrangement followed up by this tribute system is not convincingly explained. There’s always a delicate balance of power between the oppressors and the oppressed. In the parade, we’re told the Districts specialise in mining, power-generation, and so on. This would suggest rather smaller units, rather like a core city with suburbs, yet the train journey from District 12 obviously goes on for hours at high speed. So let’s say there’s a rebellion among the people who dig up the coal for the power-generation people to turn into electricity. If these people are the only miners, sending in troops to kill large numbers of them completely destabilises the interdependent supply system. The oppressive regime can try intimidation, but extermination is impossible until there are sufficient replacements prepared to take over as miners. More generally, has the land not been irradiated by nuclear fallout or perhaps chemical weaponry? Perhaps District 12 is the only area where it’s safe to dig. Worse, the downtrodden citizens in District 12 all look remarkably well fed with no sign of starvation, yet we see only a few pigs fed on reject bread and no obvious farming. Where is all the food coming from, not just in the Districts, but also to support the lavish lifestyle of the Capitol? There’s no way the Katniss we see on screen has been deprived of food even though we do see her apparently desperate for a crust of bread from Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More generally, how can anything grow if this was a widespread conflict involving the use of nuclear and/or chemical weapons? Surely the soil is irredeemably polluted?
Now let’s come to the tribute itself. Each year, there’s a ballot across the twelve Districts to pick the twenty-four victims who are sent to the Capitol. Why, you might ask, should there be a “winner”? If the Capitol simply wanted to intimidate the Districts, it could execute twenty-four young people randomly selected every year. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) explains the tribute is slightly more insidious by offering all participants the illusion of hope — an illusion for twenty-three since only one can survive. This is political nonsense. Surely the only real outcome is to depress eleven Districts who get to see their children killed on live television while the twelfth only gets back one child. Why do any of the victims have any hope? Why are the Districts not more angry? Finally, why must the winners go back to their Districts? Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who acts as mentor to Katniss and Peeta, is still in the Capitol after winning twenty years ago. Why was this drunken streak of misery privileged while everyone else was sent back to live in poverty?
If we look back in the cinema, films like Battle Royale, Death Race 2000, Rollerball and The Running Man have shown us dystopian futures in which mass entertainment is used to manipulate the mood of the people. It’s the old blood-and-circuses idea from Ancient Rome. So this film flirts with the Capitol being a new Rome as our carefully coiffed victims ride in in their chariots to be greeted by their adoring fans. This is reinforced by the naming system. The game’s manager is Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the interviewer and all-round television face is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and stylist Cinna (Lennie Kravitz) (originally a long-serving consul of the Roman Republic).
When sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected as District 12’s female victim, it’s up to Katniss to volunteer in her place. The other ballot “winner” is Peeta. She receives moral support and image advice from Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna. As is required for a young adult heroine, Katniss ranges between surly and spunky in early scenes at the Capitol. Her display with the bow, however, breaks the ice and makes her a popular favorite. Peeta consolidates her star quality by confessing a long-time crush on her. In the end this battle is all about the ratings and she becomes dominant, a fact displeasing to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who fears this spunky volunteer may incite riots among supporters in outlying Districts.
When we get to the games themselves, like The Truman Show, the managers of this closed environment can control the day/night cycle. More importantly, they can start fires and force the contestants out of safe hiding places and towards a confrontation with the others. Otherwise one or two could just sit out the contest until everyone else was dead or wounded. Of course, all kinds of outside interference are possible if the government or sponsors permit. But what seems to be achievable is pure fantasy not science fiction. The fires are absolutely controllable, complete with RPG balls that can be shot at people, plus trees that fall on command. At the press of a button, they are extinguished and there’s no sign of smoke damage or burned vegetation during the rest of the film. And then there are these genetically modified dogs. I suppose they must be kept in kennels somewhere and then uploaded. But how are they cleared away so quickly?
So where does this leave us? At 136 minutes (including the credits) it’s too long. This is not to say the individual parts are not interesting but, when put together, it’s excessive. The fatal game sequence has its moments and, in strictly technical terms, there’s a certain fascination in seeing how the numbers are whittled down and the final deaths occur. This being a film aimed at a young adult audience, there’s little or no blood shown. The necessary deaths are managed with taste and decorum — many out-of-shot. Similarly the game romance is suitably chaste. Just a peck or two on the cheeks and lips, and lying down together platonically to maintain body temperatures while “healing” takes place. All this is quite enjoyable. But the major failing of the film is to explain how the Hunger Games came to be and, more importantly, how they fit into the current political framework. It seems even the managers are not entirely sure of their roles. The result is snatched scenes of rioting with white, helmeted troops moving in to quell the disturbances but nothing is explained.
As a final question, is District 11 racially segregated? In writing this I’m not trying to reignite the racist tweeting over the casting of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) but, when we see shots of District 11, the majority of the inhabitants do seem to be African American. So is this the agriculture District where they grow the cotton? Although it’s good to see African Americans and a Nigerian in the cast, it seems we’re not post-racial in this post-apocalypse, i.e. we do not see a general ethnic and racial diversity across all parts of this state. We spend considerable time in District 12. Why is there no clear racial integration on display? If the film-makers had wanted to defuse suspicion of racism embedded in the structure of this fictional world, all they had to do was show a real mixture of races in District 12.
This leaves me thinking The Hunger Games is probably very entertaining for young adults but deeply frustrating for anyone with a fully developed brain.
A number of people have suggested that this film borrows a little too heavily from the two Battle Royale films. Here are the reviews: Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)
Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルＩＩ (2003)