• “The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross, Lionsgate Films, 142 minutes, released April 6.
“If no one watches, then they don't have a game,” muses a young man at the beginning of Lionsgate Films' blockbuster adaptation of “The Hunger Games”, a dystopia that paints a distant, depraved future that the author would have us believe may not be so far-fetched. As punishment for an attempted revolution many years before, the tyrannical government of post-apocalyptic nation Panem hosts the annual Hunger Games, a nationally-televised spectacle pitting 24 teenagers in combat to the death for the entertainment of the jaded denizens of the Capitol.
When a young girl named Primrose Everdeen is chosen by lottery as the female Tribute from District 12, her devoted older sister Katniss steps forward and volunteers to take her place in the contest. Katniss, portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, is joined by baker's son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) for the trip to The Capitol. In stark contrast to the impoverished District 12, filmed at a long-abandoned mill town in western North Carolina, the Capitol is a futuristic city. Even so, the culture's materialism hearkens to the Fall of Rome. This comparison is intentional. As we meet television host Caesar Flickerman and President Seneca Crane, the Romanesque alliterations insinuate that technological advances do not always prevent a culture from returning to barbarism.
The period of training prior to the games offers many moments of clarity. The grossly impersonal attitude of the trainers toward these innocents condemned to a future of kill-or-be-killed warfare — and the audience's voracious appetite for pain and suffering — are eerily congruent with the manner in which reality TV shows focus on the heartbroken losers, not the victors. Peeta's confession that he has loved Katniss since he first saw her creates an uncomfortable love triangle between the two Tributes and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a long-time male friend left behind. A comment made by perpetually drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy — “It's a television show, and being in love with that boy... might just save your life” — is disturbing in its similarity to the darkest corners of corporate politics, where virtue often is traded for advancement.
However dark it may seem, the film is not without its bright spots. After witnessing firsthand the Capitol's insatiable bloodlust, Peeta voices his determination to avoid becoming a pawn of the system. “I don't want them to change me, turn me into something I'm not,” he vows. “If I'm gonna die, I want to still be me.” Peeta challenges us to make a difference by standing against the perverted entertainments prominent in our culture.
Director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “The Tale of Despereaux”) weaves a captivating tale that is supported by its production values; professional, yet not overly inventive camera angles mirror those used in cable television shows, while jerky, hand-held movements conjure the raw realism of an indie documentary.
Short vignettes, while seemingly unrelated to the topic at hand, help drive home the moral. One scene shows cold assessments of each Tribute's skills, as analyzed by oddsmakers while children pretend to kill each other in the background. This makes the point that if the entertainment world romanticizes violence, then our children will lose their moral objections to murder and mayhem, so long as it supports their goals.
“The Hunger Games” is excellent in execution of its story, and remains mostly faithful to Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel. There were inspiring points and thought-provoking ones, yet there are notable disappointments. There are instances where the filmmakers seemingly condoned incredible violence and celebrated human suffering by focusing on dying and mutilated Tributes. They also place the protagonist Katniss in situations where the viewer fully expects, even encourages, her to take another teenager's life, supports her threatened suicide in a Romeo and Juliet style plot twist, and judges a killing as “merciful.”
We spend the entire film disgusted by the cold, cruel way highly trained “Career” tributes kill less fortunate combatants. Yet in the final moments, viewers are treated to a climactic struggle culminating in Katniss “mercifully” killing a Tribute in pain. All the other murders are portrayed as barbaric and evil, yet Katniss' deed somehow does not warrant the same judgment because the victim was “going to die anyway.”
The future that “The Hunger Games” warns against is less frightening than the future derived from accepting its worldview. If killing is justified under those terms, how long will it take before euthanizing elderly citizens or performing partial-birth abortions on “handicapped” babies also is justified? How long until the accepted treatment for any terminal illness is a lethal injection?
“The Hunger Games” is an experiment in revulsion therapy that falls short of its lofty goal. It shows the evil inherent in being entertained by pain and death. When the educational publisher Scholastic Inc. asked Collins about the popular appeal of reality TV, she said, “Then there’s the voyeuristic thrill — watching people being humiliated, or brought to tears, or suffering physically — which I find very disturbing. There’s also the potential for desensitizing the audience, so that when they see real tragedy playing out on, say, the news, it doesn’t have the impact it should.”
Sadly, “The Hunger Games” displays that “voyeuristic thrill.” While we are lectured for 142 minutes about the dangers of violent entertainment, the fact remains; The Hunger Games is a violent movie. While it makes powerful points through satire, I question its effectiveness. If our nation is headed for a two-week long celebration of brutal murder — as suggested by the filmmakers — do we really need a Hollywood paean to teenage violence under the guise of “awareness”?
Only time will tell whether films such as “The Hunger Games” will convince our society of its erroneous ways, or further desensitize us to atrocities by barraging our senses with a hearty helping of innocent blood spilled, graphic slayings, and the cruel, scorning laugh of killers.