Nita and I saw The Hunger Games this weekend. Standing in line, we had a few reservations. A couple people told us on the way in that the movie did not quite live up to the books. On the other hand, we haven’t read the books. (Book 1 is now on the TBR list.) If they did their job well, we wouldn’t notice.
They did their job. The Hunger Games was, in fact, an excellent movie. A surreal mix of American Idol, Survivor, and a seventies blood sport movie (Death Race 2000, Rollerball, The Running Man*) For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games takes place in a future North America now occupied by country called Panem, which has twelve districts and a Capitol, a rather lovely city somewhere in what used to be Colorado. Almost a century before the story begins, the districts rebelled against the Capitol. Under terms of the treaty that ended the war, each district would provide one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the Hunger Games. The games are a blood sport as the contestants fight each other to the death while trying to survive. In the lead up to the games, the teens are trained in combat and showed off like contestants on American Idol. During this time, bets are laid on individual “tributes” and the tributes try to win sponsors who will send food and medicine into the forest during the game.
Naturally, the games are a distraction to keep the districts from realizing that the Capitol is sucking them dry. And President Snow wants to keep it that way. Imagine Donald Sutherland playing Palpatine from the Star Wars movies, only with less cackling and less charm. That is Panem’s scheming president. And he’s the perfect president for the Capitol. The citizens eat to excess and dress like rejects from pre-Revolution France. Meanwhile, Katniss and Peeta, the story’s protagonists, grow up in District 12, which is apparently coal mining country in the Appalachians, having to shoot game for food. So how did they get chosen?
Sometimes children will ask the government’s peace keepers for food. Each time that happens, their name is entered into the lottery. Katniss volunteers when, on her first lottery, her sister Prim is selected. Katniss volunteers as a tribute to protect her sister. Peeta, a local boy, is selected as the male tribute. They are given a mentor, Haymitch, a former winner of the games. Haymitch is clearly damaged by the experience, spending most of his time drunk. However, Haymitch takes a shine to Peeta and Katniss, who is a crack archer. Following the advice of Haymitch and Cinna, who is the stylist to the tributes, Katniss overcomes her resentment toward the games and unwillingness to kiss up to her hosts to become the favorite in this year’s Games.
The Games themselves take place in a forest wired for sight and sound, as well as a few tricks the game masters can use to prod the game along. As the game progresses, Katniss is seen as a symbol of hope. President Snow ain’t having that and tells the game master to “fix it.”
The movie has a lot of touchstones in current popular culture. The shows surrounding the games are glitzy, glamorous affairs that resemble the musical competition shows like X-Factor and American Idol closely enough to make you squirm. Once into the game, players – the ones who survive the opening gambit – form alliances that hunt the other players. It’s almost like Survivor as blood sport. Katniss even forms an alliance with a young player named Rue.
Jennifer Lawrence is great as the main character, Katniss. She brings a great deal of gravitas to the role of a teenage girl who’s already had to grow up fast. Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, is equally angsty without straying into Twilight territory. After all, he spends time scheming and conniving, falling in with the trained killers from Districts 1 and 2 to steer them where he wants them to go.
The Capitol is a terrific centerpiece to this movie, a glitzy oasis of decadence in what’s become a Third World nation in the post-American, post-Canadian era. Yet from a distance, while beautiful and peaceful in appearance, the Capitol lacks the grandeur of New York or Chicago, Toronto or San Francisco. This is a shadow of what came before, and the best it can hope for is a parasitic existence off the twelve districts it rules.
In supporting roles, Woody Harrellson is somewhat understated in his role as Haymitch, the sad, drunken former champion who finds his mojo in turning Katniss into the star of the Games. Early on, he works with a surprisingly good Lenny Kravitz. In the meantime, there is Sutherland as President Snow, who lacks only a white cat to fondle and Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan making his life miserable. He and Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane do a great job personifying the self-centered, brutal politics of Panem. But if you’re looking for the absurdity of a society that views a blood sport designed to kill twenty-three teenagers annually as a national holiday, look no further than Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. Banks is Effie Trinket, Katniss and Peeta’s prissy, manners and fashion-obsessed escort to the Capitol. She has an accent reminiscent of Glenda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz and looks eerily like Marie Antionette. Tucci gives oily Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman an gleeful, effeminate aura and plays Flickerman’s attention whore tendencies to the hilt.
What makes this movie truly unsettling is the naturalistic setting. Like the most recent version of Battlestar Galactica and its prequel, Caprica, director Gary Ross creates a Panem that looks much like present day America or Europe, with District 12 a dead on replica of today’s West Virginia coal mining country. Thankfully, directors these days are getting away from making the future look so… so…
Futury? No sliding doors. The 200-mph train looks like every passenger train built since 1950. The clothes are different without being unfamiliar. Contrast that with the 1970’s dystopic standard, Logan’s Run, which posits that, in the future, we will dress in spandex and live in shopping malls. No wonder everyone was okay with dying at 30 in that one.
If you read the books, please keep in mind this is a 2 1/2 hour movie. They manage to convey the essence of the books, and the biggest complaint I heard is what I normally hear about such adaptations, in that some material was left out. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie stands on its own and is well worth the first run ticket. And it’s a great advertisement for Susan Collins’ novels. I consider it the long-overdue successor to the Harry Potter series.
*Yes, I know The Running Man was from 1987. Work with me here.