Note: the following contains some plot revelations necessary so if you have not read the novel or seen the film, beware--you might want to wait till you have.
Rated PG-13. Our Ratings: V -5; L -2; S/N -1.
No shrinking violet, this heroine!
© 2012 Lionsgate Films
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
The premise of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is a bit chilling--kids killing kids until only one survives--and a few years ago it was even regarded as repugnant. There was quite a furor over the ultra-violent Japanese film Battle Royale when it was released in 2001, so much so that it was not circulated in the USA. Set in the near future when youth are revolting and committing criminal acts, the Japanese government reacts to the violent youth rebellion by passing a law that each year one high school class of students will be taken to an island and forced to fight each other until only one is left--and if they do not kill, the explosive charge in the neckring each must wear will be detonated. Jump to 2012 and note the sea change in the public acceptance of this premise! The film version of Suzanne Collins' wildly popular novel The Hunger Games becomes a smashing success from the very start of its 12:01 A.M opening, with millions of young people either skipping school on Friday or else drowsily going through the motions in class. (I have even heard of one person who saw the movie twice within the first 12 hours of its showing! Nor were the viewers just young, many older adults also having embraced the novel.)
The enthusiastic reaction of the audience at the advance screening that I attended left no doubt that director Gary Ross' film will match the success of the novel. He and his co-writers Suzanne Collins herself and veteran screenwriter Billy Ray carefully pruned away parts of the book, an operation required for a two hour movie (actually 2 hours 22 minutes). For instance, Madge, the Mayor's daughter who gave the heroine the mockingjay pin she wears is cut, but despite such omissions, the film presents well the essence of the novel. The major change made in the screen version is the change of voice, the filmmakers opting for an omniscient camera view rather than the book's first person narration by Katniss. Also we see far more cutaways from the two main characters to scenes of President Snow, the Head Gamekeeper (Wes Bently) and others back in the Capitol: their remarks fill in the information necessary to understand the predicament of a character or her action, information that Katniss supplies in the book's first person narrative. Also, techies will love the NASA-like control room where the Gamekeepers keep track of each player and comjure up deadly threats, such as a forest fire and fireballs, to enliven the action, something the book does not really describe.
For the few in the audience who have not read the book the film is prefaced by a few lines from "The Treaty of Treason" informing viewers that in the future the nation of Panem emerged from the ruins of the old nations of North America. Panem is divided into 12 Districts with the Capitol (apparently situated in the Rocky Mountains) taking in the majority of the produce of the Districts. As the penalty for a past revolt each district is required to hold an annual lottery to select a girl and a boy between the ages of 12 and 16 as tributes. Thus 24 youth are sent to the Capitol where they are primped and pampered for four days and then set down in a huge arena where they are to fight and kill each other until just one is left. By means of what must be thousands of hidden cameras the combat is televised throughout Panem, with everyone required to watch.
The impoverished residents of the Districts watch the Games with apprehension based on their concern for their own tributes, whereas the bewigged and effete residents of the Capitol, seeming to be a throwback to the audiences at the Roman gladiatorial games. No doubt this is intentional, the country's name being Panem, from the Latin word for bread--remember the Roman Emperors' scheme of keeping the masses of Rome content by their policy of "Bread and Circuses"? Thus the thrill hungry Capitolonians delightedly watch the odds posted by each tribute's name so they can place bets on a tribute. Some of the wealthier spectators even join together as sponsors to send a much needed item to their favorite tribute via a silver parachute guided to the recipient (each participitant is easily traceble by a tracking device injected into an arm at the beginning of the Games).
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a character somewhat similar to the tough Ozarks Mountain girl she portrayed in Winter's Bone. Katniss lives with her 12 year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields) and their mother in District 12, obviously our Appalachia, as we can tell by the too-familiar shacks and line of men wearing hardhats on their way to a coal mine. Ever since her father died in a mine explosion, sending her mother into an almost catatonic state of despair, Katniss has been the provider of food for her family. She and her male friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), also about her age, 16, sneak through the electric fence surrounding their village almost every day in the search for edible roots, berries, and game in the nearby forest. In the process Katniss has become adept with the bow and arrow and at setting snares for small game. (The book does better in portraying the terrible hunger that assaults the citizens of District 12, leading to starvation for some, and a desparate scramble for food by Katniss and Gale. Neither of the actors look very thin or gaunt in this opening section of the film.)
Then comes the day of the Lottery and it is Prim, not Katniss or any of the other more mature girls, whose name is drawn. The older sister rushes after the guards escorting Prim to the podium as she yells that she will volunteer to take her place. She is accepted, and the drawing for the male volunteer results in the baker's son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) being selected. In a later flashback we learn of his kindness. He once tossed Katniss a loaf of bread when she had sat crying in the rain because neither hunting nor begging had garnered any food that day. Their Games mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a victor in the Games many years before, is on the stage, but in the film he is not quite as buffoonish--he does drink too much and looks unkempt, but he does not drunkenly fall off the stage. We also see a little more of him in the film version, as when the kids are in the arena and he approaches some Capitol denizens seeking their sponsorship for Katniss so that she will receive some medicine she badly needs.
To save space I will skip over the interesting section in which the pair are transported to the Capitol and prepared for the arena, the intent of which was to make all of the tributes telegenic--The Hunger Games is the ultimate Reality TV show. Unlike Battle Royale, in which the forced killing is suposedly done to control youth back home, the killing in The Hunger Games is for the amusement of the population, plus a means of displaying the Capitol's control over the 12 Distritcs. The Arena, in a way a dystopia within a dystopia, is a vast area with forests, a lake, streams and mountains that is under the total control of the Game Master and his large corps of technicians who keep watch over each tribute through the tracking device and the myriad of cameras that apparently are hidden everywhere.
Each of the tributes is raised from beneath groundlevel and stands on a small platform until the signal is given for the Games to begin. (They have been warned that if they try to step off even a second too early, they will detonate a landmine!) They form a large semi-circle around a big metal Cornucopia that is filled with provisions. All kinds of packs of food and tools, even an archery set, lie before them. However, Haymitch has strictly told them not to run to the Cornucopia because the strong tributes, some of whom have actually been training for the Games all their young lives, will turn that area into a killing field. At the signal Katniss, overcoming her urge to run to the distant bow and quiver of arrows, grabs a backpack and runs into the forest. The field behind her does indeed become a blood-soaked meadow littered with bodies as, during the rush for the coveted goods, the strong crush the weak. A canon booms for each death, and an image of the dead child is projected high up over the arena.
How Katniss slowly is transformed from victim into victor is well told, with Peeta playing an important part in her development. Both the book and film are good in bringing out the humanity of the two. Back in the Capitol when they talked one night on a rooftop, he tells her, "I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don't own me. If I'm gonna die, I wanna still be me. " (For a fuller version of his desire to be "more than a piece in their game" see pp. 141-142 in the novel.) I think Katniss begins to understand this more when she forges an all too brief alliance with Rue, the young girl from District 11 who had helped her elude a band of tributes that cornered her up a tree. During this sequence friendship takes the place of survival in the heart of Katniss. She tries to put completely out of her mind the thought that there would come the moment when she would have to kill the younger girl whi is now a trusted and trusting companion.
In the film version this sequence ends too quickly, with Katniss hurrying back from a mission to their rendezvous point. She has heard Rue's cry, but she arrives too late, one of the male tributes having thrust his spear into the girl's abdomine. (Katniss scores her first kill, sending an arrow into the neck of the boy.) Then while Rue is dying, Katniss not only stays with her to sing a song as she had requested, but also gathers wild flowers to place on Rue's body as a token of love and respect, something that the people watching on their screens back in District 11 appreciate. (The film at this point adds to the novel by inserting a fairly long scene of Rue's grieving father in District 11 attacking a soldier, this triggering hundreds of others into fighting against the occupying troops. Was this inserted to set us up for the sequel? I wish that the filmmakers instead had used this time to include the scene from the novel in which the citizens of District 11 send a loaf of their bread to Katniss as a token of their appreciation for what she had done for Rue.)
In the book sequence chronicling the friendship between the two girls I had hoped that Suzanne Collins was heading toward an ending in which Rue, Katniss, and Peeta would sit down in front of the Cornucopia and refuse to fight each other. This would be a powerful way to follow up on Peeta's thoughts (repeated on pp.236-237 when, following Rue's death, Katniss recalls them). This saying "No" to the Games' rule that the victor must kill all opponents would be in the spirit of the peacemakers profiled in Daniel L. Buttry's ReadtheSpirit's book Blessed Are the Peacemakers (see the review in this issue). The three would be like the early Christian martyrs tossed into the Roman Colliseum but who refused to pick up a weapon to defend themselves. For those martyrs this willingness to be killed rather than to kill was their way of showing that Caesar could not, in Peeta's words, "change me in there. Turn me into some kind of a monster that I am not." (p. 141)
In case you are thinking that there would have been no sequels if the book had ended with Rue, Katniss, and Peeta's martyrdom, I would contend that they might not have been executed. The audience had already been made to root for the District 12 pair by their handlers' promoting them as star crossed lovers. Thus they already held the attention and the sympathy of viewers, including those of the Capitol. By including the elfin Rue in their pact not to kill, they would have projected to the audience a love transcending that of boy-girl, a selfless love that sometimes can persuade an enemy to change, as Blessed Are The Peacemakers shows in some of its mini-biographies (among whom are Gandhi and Martin Luther King, J.). But even if they had died, the sequels would still be possible, because there is Prim and Gale back in District 12. Inspired by the trio's courageous example, in time they might have launched a non-violent resistance against the Capitol, one unique in such tales of dystopia and revolt. (Well, not quite unique, as there is the 1951 classic science fiction story by Eric Frank Russell "And Then Were None" about a Gandhian society resisting occupation by a Terran Empire force. You can read the story at: http://www.abelard.org/e-f-russell.php )
But Ms. Collins ventured just a little way in that direction when she had Katniss make her suggestion to Peeta in front of the Corucopia. Their Romeo and Juliette-like act of resistance is a clever and emtionally satisfying denoument, maybe not as profound as the one I would have liked, but then Ms. Collins wrote a book to entertain, not to be a peacemaking tract. The movie version of her dystopian tale is one of the best science fiction films to be released in a long time, well deserving to join the company of WALL-E and the excellent films described in Part 1 and below.
This review with 18 discussion questions is available to Visual Parables subscribers at visualparables.net.