Politics at the Movies:’Hunger Games’

The Hunger Games
Directed by Gary Ross

There’s no shortage of opportunities out there at the moment for some ‘last man standing’ vicarious voyeurism – whether it be “Celebrity Apprentice,” “The Voice,” any number of cable cooking shows, the NCAA playoffs, or the latest ‘vote them off the podium’ phenomenon: “Survivor: The Republican Primaries.”  And given our species’ propensity for rubber-necking at freeway accidents, watching video clip shows that focus on hard crotch landings, and tuning in to assorted gameshows in which contestants endure pain and/or humiliation, it’s no wonder that we’re periodically given fictional contests in which the stakes are raised to life and death proportions.

These have come in multiple formats, from homeless people being hunted for sport (e.g. “The Game”), prisoners competing for freedom (e.g. “The Running Man,” “Death Race”), and groups of people thrown into obtuse deadly challenges (e.g. “Cube”).  We’ve even had the premise before with kids as contestants (e.g. “Battle Royale”).  But “The Hunger Games” raises the stakes in a new way, by taking ritualized game show death to the masses, especially young audiences, in unprecedented numbers (well, perhaps since the Roman Coliseum) – after three years on the bestselling book lists and with a movie opening that’s going to crush the competition (and which might even break records).  Note: With a reported production budget of only $78million, it could be profitable on a worldwide basis by the end of the weekend – it’s like the anti-“John Carter.”

All of which practically forces one to view this and consider it not just as a movie or even an ‘event movie’ but on multiple other levels – including what it says about us that a story of this kind would be so appealing to so many people.

For starters, I can’t comment on the book, as I haven’t read it and, therefore, I can’t determine how good the adaptation is – although author Suzanne Collins’ presence as a producer would seem to be a good sign.

The basic story is set in a future society built on the rubble of North America and in which 12 “Districts” are controlled by “The Capitol,” in part by requiring them to send 2 young “tributes” to take part in the annual “Hunger Games” – a staged gladiatorial competition in which 23 of the 24 contestants are necessarily going to die.  The film does little (virtually nothing) to explain why this system would diminish likely rebellions rather than encourage them, but it’s the premise so we’re expected to roll with it however hard to fathom.

Our focus is on the two tributes from District 12 – which looks remarkably like an Appalachian coal mining community in the past, as it’s apparently an Appalachian coal mining community in a post-apocalyptic future.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a reluctant volunteer who jumps in to take the place of her younger sister and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is the local baker’s kid, chosen by the same lottery that selected Primrose Everdeen.

As one might expect from a film like this, the focus is on the competition and the opening scenes feel like content that we need to get through to get to that point.  I’m guessing that the character development and relationships are explored more fully in the book – as perhaps are the characters of at least some of the other tributes – but not here.

That said, while Katniss and Peeta aren’t exactly looking forward to the Games, there are other tributes that are, with some Districts grooming children from birth to fight for local honor and reward.  Interestingly, one of those kids is played by Jack Quaid, who as the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan may also have been groomed since birth for “The Hunger Games.”

This idea reminded me of two other novels – “Never Let Me Go” and Unwind.”  Both involve, within their own contexts, the idea of farming young people for body parts (not quite the same as death bouts, but equally fatal).  But whereas the film adaptation of “Never let Me Go” seemed bothersome to me for its relative lack of outrage, “Unwind” depicted both kids who had been raised to want to be harvested, with a religious conviction, and those who wanted to avoid it to the point of becoming renegades – a balance that seemed far more realistic and closer in tome to “The Hunger Games.”

Purely as a film, “The Hunger Games” actually works quite well – assuming you roll with the story.  It’s well produced and well acted by cast members of all ages (and realize that the tributes can be as young as 12).  It also feels tightly packaged, not feeling as long as its 142 minutes running time, with a substantial, authentic feel that’s missing in some of the competition (although that diminishes somewhat when we’re introduced to some redundant CGI critters).  And the art direction team had fun with the relative freedom of creating a future society, with clothing, hair, and makeup that looks like they dropped acid backstage during Milan’s fashion week.

But it’s hard to get away from the fact that this is still a film about kids killing kids, intentionally, and often with great eagerness.  It’s also hard to reconcile the timing, with “The Hunger Games” being out there in the widest of wide releases with a PG-13 rating while “Bully,” a film about real life kids hurting other real life kids, that might actually reduce violence, is being blocked from its intended audience by an R rating.  In one it’s apparently fine to watch adolescents filled with blood lust as they dispatch one another with blades or their hands, but in the other it’s unacceptable to hear the “F” word seven times without upping the MPAA’s rating to avoid tragically corrupting our impressionable young people.

This is the same rating system that tends to amaze Europeans by typically allowing teenagers to see bloody massacres featuring chainsaws and automatic weapons, but conservatively “protecting” them from visible genitalia or, god forbid, two people of the same gender kissing.

Meanwhile, whether or not it’s a stretch to think that we might ever get back to a point where as a society we might throw kids into the ‘ring’ – along with the cocks, dogs, bulls, and human adults that various members of various societies already like to watch bloody each other – it’s not such a stretch to imagine that people would watch.  Our propensity for watching just about anything has already been parodied in such films as “The Truman Show” and “EdTV” – and mere rumors of filmed death can spike viewing numbers of controversial online videos – ratings be damned.

The other interesting aspect of all of this is the young adult fiction genre in general – as previously championed by the “Twilight” series.  At some level it’s surprising that none of the tributes suddenly grow fangs or claws.  But this is a boom segment of the market – typified by themes of lack of control, perceived futility in life, adults calling the shots, and young characters with chances or perhaps special powers that suddenly allow them to control their own destiny, or to at least offer a glimmer of hope.  And it’s not just being embraced by young adults, which perhaps reflects how little control over their circumstances and opportunities even older adults perceive. 

So I don’t t
hink it’s just a factor of age that comes into play when I find some aspects of this film somewhat disturbing (in different ways than when I recently watched “Project X” and just saw it as multiple lawsuits waiting to happen).  It’s worthwhile remembering that this isn’t a fantasy world like the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” environments – the world of “The Hunger Games” is only separated from our own by time and future political constructs and treaties.  And if we can live in a world with human and child labor and sex trafficking, and underage armies fighting adult wars, it sadly doesn’t seem like a complete fantasy that we could have 12 year old gladiators settling adult political conflicts – at least somewhere in the world.  And, if nothing else, that makes for dubious children’s entertainment.

But it’s still going to make a killing, figuratively speaking.  Perhaps if we put our political candidates into an arena, we could solve our economical problems.

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