Perhaps no other culture in history was ever as saturated in games as our own. We watch professional athletes in elaborate spectacles and pay to wear their jerseys. We load games onto our phones and play them on our televisions. We participate in amateur and professional leagues for trophies or stories to tell each other after the games are finished, over food and drinks. Games, and play, have lasted perhaps as long as mankind has. We simulate the struggles of life, we learn its lessons, and we pass judgment on each other's worth according to our successes and failures at games. Unlike life, in which an ultimate verdict comes only at the end, games give us a verdict that can be changed with the next game.
Now comes "The Hunger Games," the movie of Suzanne Collins' dystopian young adult novel. It was not what I expected. In some ways, it is not like the book, in that it is not a classic, crowd-pleasing action movie with a rousing score and obvious laugh lines to goose the audience into laughs. This moody, intense thriller jettisons some of the clumsier elements of the book and occasionally leaves you with the impression it's hunting something bigger than ticket sales.
The story deals with Panem, a police state divided into districts which stages an elaborate, multi-media gladiatorial spectacle each year known as the Hunger Games. Children from each district are trained to fight to the death, with the winner receiving all the material wealth so sorely lacking among their countrymen. Taking us on this journey is Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who learns that even for those fighting against evil, evil wins a little each time it changes them.
The movie begins as the book does in the Appalachian setting of District 12, where poor families watch the men troop off to the mines each day while they barely survive in ramshackle houses. The setting reminds one of "Deliverance," except that these Ozarks seem to be ruled over not by backwoodsmen but by Big Brother. This is to be expected of course - "The Hunger Games" owes a debt to Orwell's "1984," and the movie's production design harkens back to Michael Radford's film of the novel. The washed out propaganda signs, the viewing screens, the uniformity of the police state all serve to remind us that Panem does not know freedom. But these early scenes also create the contrast which will serve the rest of the story - Katniss is a reminder of the simpler past, and is as yet uncorrupted by the city, and thus by the dictatorship.
All of this changes though, at Reaping - when the children are summoned for the choosing of a boy and girl to take part in the Hunger Games. From this point, the movie seizes on the dominant theme of the book: the feeling of helplessness in the face of tyranny. Police states are about control - controlling actions that are contrary to the state, controlling people who have their own ambitions, controlling emotions to keep everyone in line, even controlling thoughts such as love. Attachments, except those sanctioned by the state, can be deadly. We are told that by this time, the Hunger Games have gone on for three-quarters of a century, and the subjects display only resignation in the face of them. There is no escape sought, or expected. When participants are chosen from the children, the "lucky" ones are expected to step forward and be grateful for this slim chance at freedom. Some of the children have been trained for this moment, but as we learn later, they all have that same feeling of being merely a spectator at their own destruction. It is only when Katniss volunteers to save the life of her sister Prim that we see someone willing to seize their own moment.
Chosen at the same time is Peeta Mellark, a boy with conflicted emotions about Katniss, who immediately understands the dynamics of the Hunger Games. As they speed toward the capital for their preparation, it becomes obvious that the games are "a television show," in the words of their trainer Haymitch. The tributes are instant celebrities, served up for the spectators, and Peeta smiles because he senses it is the only way to survive. You must convince the people to like you, even though you will eventually have to commit murder.
But Katniss will not surrender to this idea. She sees the garish, over-the-top capital for what it is, a world of tin illusions that will not last. Katniss becomes a kind of Joan of Arc, resigned to her fate, unwilling to compromise with the evil around her, defiantly keeping her own fierce morality. All the elaborate costumes, the opulent rooms, the fine food and attention comes at too high a price for her. It will not last.
Hovering over the show is the power figure, the evil President Snow played by Donald Sutherland, looking like a cross between Mark Twain and a sinister Santa Claus. He informs us that the Games are a small helping of hope for the people, another way of keeping the masses in line. "Hope is the only thing stronger than fear," he says, but only so long as it is contained.
Another of the major themes of the book and movie is the pervasiveness of media, and we get this during Katniss' interview with the Hunger Games' master of ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman. (Panem is fairly run amok with Roman names, perhaps demanding to know if we are not entertained...). Director Gary Ross decides to shoot the scene almost from Katniss' shoulder, so that we experience it as she does. We are surprised when the audience laughs at her honest answers as though they are jokes, and we are pleasantly surprised, as she is, when they laugh. Soon, she too is intoxicated by the crowd and the attention, as we would be.
Then the games begin, and Katniss is at first concerned only with staying alive. The brutality of the games is softened somewhat by Ross' direction, relying on hand-held cameras and motion to let our minds imagine the murders in the arena. But when Katniss does finally kill, it is to protect and avenge. She will not surrender a part of herself in order to provide the necessary entertainment.
But she does change. Her attachment to Peeta grows as the rules are altered to allow them both to possibly live at the games' conclusion. Though the two have no way of knowing, they are inspiring the first stirrings of revolution. Peeta is injured, and Katniss must care for him, which further endears them to the crowd. But to each other? We are not sure the connection they feel is completely genuine, especially when Haymitch encourages Katniss in a note that she might plant a more entertaining kiss on Peeta for the benefit of sponsors.
There is no mention of religion in Panem, so we have no idea what Katniss and Peeta expect to happen to themselves when they nearly choose suicide over victory in the games. They only see death as a release, as a final act of defiance to the power that sent them to kill each other. It is the only choice left to the two, at least by their own moral code. When they are snatched back to prevent their victory, they learn a lesson, as does President Snow. In order to survive in a dictatorship, one is forced to lie, every day, as long as the dictatorship lives. Katniss and Peeta must maintain the fiction of their relationship for the near future in order to continue surviving. But their lives are a threat to the power of Snow, and as the camera follows him away from the adulation of the games, we know that in order for him to survive, he must eventually finish the task these games denied him. Evil can never rest as long as hope lives.
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