CINEMA: News Weekly
Gruesome possibilities for reality TV
, April 28, 2012
The Hunger Games (rated M), starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. Reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
The latest addition to the survivalist-dystopian canon is The Hunger Games, a fantastical film about kids killing kids as an exercise in social control and shot in a hybrid docudrama-gamer style.
It has much to recommend it, has stirred up a goodly storm in conservative cultural circles, but ultimately lacks the intellectual nutrition to take it from teen drama to grand social commentary.
Panem is a world of rigid class distinctions. The rich and powerful live in the Capitol in a state of outrageously conspicuous consumption. The poor and powerless are constrained in 12 districts depending upon their primary industry.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)
in The Hunger Games.
To “celebrate” the crushing of a rebellion by the districts, the Capitol introduced the Hunger Games, in which two “tributes”, a girl and a boy between the ages of 12 and 18, are selected from each district to fight to the death in a purpose-built high-tech arena for the televised amusement of the rich and as an exercise in control over the poor.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough and principled young woman skilled with bow and arrow, volunteers to take the place of her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) as tribute and joins Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the super-strong baker’s son, to represent District Twelve.
They are mentored by the outrageous Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the wily and alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy (brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson) and the arch and cynical Cinna (a fine and sophisticated performance by Lenny Kravitz) in how to play the game and survive.
The cast is outstanding. Stanley Tucci plays the menacingly camp talk-show host, Caesar Flickerman, who MCs the games with wicked aplomb. Wes Bentley is marvellously Mephistophelean as the game-maker, Seneca Crane; and topping them all is the dignified and ruthless President Coriolanus Snow, superbly portrayed by the very able Donald Sutherland.
Criticisms have been levelled at Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games books, most notably by the Good Reading Guide, that they are a celebration of violence and consequentialism and should be treated with extreme caution.
These critiques, which may be valid for the books, are not valid for this cinema adaptation. The film’s audience is not encouraged to revel in the killing, nor are the heroine’s actions depicted as anything but ones of last resort. The gore in the film is suggested more than it is depicted, and when depicted it is done in such a way that it emphasises its horrific nature.
Others have criticised the story for its very premise of teenagers fighting to the death, which is all well and good, but leads to long debates over aesthetics and what can be depicted in art and what can not — debates that require more space than is possible in this review. Suffice to say, and in an effort not to be flippant, the depiction of horrible things has always been a mainstay of art, and has been accepted as such.
Having said that, the intended audience for The Hunger Games renders many aspects of the story problematic. The themes can easily be seen as unsuitable for younger audiences and this leads to either the lessening of their intensity, or the possibility that it will be seen by those who lack the formation necessary to appreciate it. Both seem to play out within the movie and they lead to a story that is unable to go as far as it arguably should.
The cinematography keenly aids this process. The movie is shot by a constantly moving shakey-cam obsessed with close-ups. The close-ups force the focus on the personal and the intimate, while the third-person shakey-cam emphasises the resonances with both reality TV and the gamer culture that is common to today’s youth, but allows for little in the way of detached reflection and analysis.
The story resonates with grand over-arching themes of human sacrifice, the potential for evil in all of us, and state control, but these are lost in a narrative that is so intently aimed at youth it only draws the slightest of parallels with Ancient Rome, let alone anything else relevant to these concerns.
Ultimately this leaves The Hunger Games emaciated, and eviscerated of rich meaning and commentary. This is dystopia-lite, and it pales in comparison with the likes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (brilliantly filmed in 1984 with Richard Burton and John Hurt), or Huxley’s Brave New World.
It is similarly lacking when compared with such survivalist classics, and explorations of the potential for evil, as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (chillingly adapted by the great Peter Brook in 1963, and again in a 1990 colour version), or Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game (made into a superb and still arresting film in 1932).
The Hunger Games is not a bad film, nor a corrupting one, but it is one hungry for more meat to dress its skeletal frame.