Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

They say the book is always better than the movie. There's something about the combination of quality writing and a piqued imagination that can transcend the moving pictures on a screen. The movie versions of our favorite books suffer from a particular prejudice--we are always comparing. Consider The Hunger Games: the novel's increasing popularity led to a huge box office success for the film version, with the highest grossing non-sequel midnight showing for any film. With the popularity of other young adult novels turned into film series (Twilight, Harry Potter, etc.), The Hunger Games was ripe for harsh critiques and comparisons. Thankfully, filmmaker Gary Ross has been faithful to the source material while also crafting an entertaining and thought-provoking film.

The Hunger Games is set in a future dystopian world where the remnants of America have been gathered into the nation of Panem. Divided into twelve outlying districts and controlled by the luxurious Capitol, a yearly event known as the Hunger Games unites the nation in a grim ritual--the Capitol selects a boy and a girl from each district to fight to the death on a live broadcast. The narrative focuses on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old from the impoverished District 12. She illegally hunts for food in the woods beyond the District's boundaries in order to provide for her taciturn mother and younger sister, Prim. On the day of the Reaping, delicate Prim is chosen as the tribute from District 12. Katniss courageously volunteers to take her place in the Games, sparing Prim's life while putting her own life in the hands of the Capitol.

Much of the film's first half is centered around the events leading up to the games itself, with Katniss and her District 12 counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), experiencing life in the Capitol. They become overnight celebrities, thrust into the spotlight with elaborate displays of fashion and televised interviews. The latter act takes place in the game arena, with Katniss and Peeta struggling to survive against the other tributes and the arena itself. Ross manages to make the violence both grim yet tolerable. After all, these are teenagers killing one another for sport, which is a fairly twisted premise. The Hunger Games neither glorifies nor downplays the violence of the games; the shots of dead teenagers is haunting and affecting. The film is quite intense, using the cinema verite "shaky cam" technique and excellent sound editing to create a sense of realism and energy.

Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss shares a strong parallel to the breakout role that put Lawrence on the map--her portrayal of Ree in Winter's Bone. Both are resilient young women with absent fathers and emotionally-broken mothers. Both have to care for their younger siblings from the threat of starvation. Both have a disdain for the authority and don't enjoy being played, nor playing by the rules. Both are examples of strong and capable young women, a refreshing alternative to the whiny and helpless heroine of Twilight. Since the book is told from the first-person perspective of Katniss, it's amazing that Lawrence manages to fully express internal emotions without overt narration. She effectively shows (and rarely tells) what Katniss is feeling. Hutcherson is fairly effective as Peeta, but the strongest supporting cast are Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the District 12 mentor, and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the fashion designer assigned to the District 12 tributes.

While The Hunger Games is filled with relevant cultural themes--the popularity of reality television, the morality of violence and resistance, etc.--it sadly never dives too deep to explore each of these subjects. It is difficult to toe the line between mindless entertainment and mindful engagement, and I felt the film leaned towards the latter, though not without its faults. I'm particularly intrigued about how The Hunger Games serves as a parallel to our own teen culture. We live in a culture where young people are paradoxically elevated in status and stature, while also being systemically manipulated and/or abandoned by the world of adults. Katniss is forced to participate in an adult-controlled game, put on display as a sort of celebrity. The people of the Capitol don't love her; they love the version of her portrayed on a screen, made up by fashion designers and TV producers. The adults in Katniss's world are there to use her or abuse her, with a few exceptions--Haymitch and Cinna both seemed to genuinely care about their tributes, with an affection and advocacy that makes this youth pastor smile.

While many parallels can be drawn between this film and Battle Royale, the Japanese film where teens are also placed in an arena to fight to the death, The Hunger Games adds the element of voyeurism. There is a constant reminder throughout the film that this is a show. Moral choices are determined by whatever keeps the people entertained, whatever wins over sponsors, and whatever pleases the producers. Perhaps a stronger parallel is to The Truman Show, where reality TV is taken to such an extreme as to appear manipulative and ridiculous. Yet in a world where shows like The Bachelor and Jersey Shore draw millions of viewers, perhaps we're closer to The Hunger Games than we'd like to admit. We are a culture in love with our screens.

Is the film as good as the book? Yes and no. Yes, it respects the source material and brings to life the world in our imagination. Yes, it kept me entertained and eager to experience the second and third films in the trilogy. Yet I found myself wondering, should a film about the abuse and manipulation of young people leave me feeling satisfied and entertained? Is there a deeper reason why this story and its themes are so inviting to the young people in our culture? And what am I doing, right now, to make sure that this dystopian world of entertainment and abandonment doesn't become our reality?