Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dystopia for the Current Generation -- Reflections on "The Hunger Games" (2012)

And little girls across America will now start taking up archery as a hobby...
Senior year of high school was a memorable time for me. In Mrs. Podgorski’s English IV class, we embarked on a unit in which we were required to read three thematically similar novels: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Each book took a different look at our future, and it was bleak. Huxley saw our future as a self-centered, hedonistic society in which our leaders keep us anesthetized. Orwell saw a totalitarian society with complete government intrusion in every element of our lives, except our thoughts. And Bradbury envisioned a world that seemed to combine Huxley and Orwell’s vision, yet he found a ray of hope in something as simple as stopping to smell roses. These dystopic novels changed me as a teenager, shaping much of my worldview, especially Bradbury.

If ever was there a time for a dystopic view of the future, it’s now. With its breathtaking visuals, well-drawn characters, and clever plotting, The Hunger Games is the dystopic vision we need. It is this generation’s 1984, mixed with a bit of The Lord of the Flies in the style of The Running Man. Those are some lofty comparisons, shaded by a bit of hyperbole, but I imagine for today’s teenager it will have a similar impact to the books I read in my 12th grade year.

This is not to say that The Hunger Games is a masterpiece, or a perfect film. It has some definite flaws, but it makes up for those with some strong performances from its outstanding cast and by anchoring its story in relationships we can care about.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in District 12 of a country called Panem. Her district is on the outskirts of the country, and is rooted in squalor. Since her father’s coal mining death, she has become the responsible party in her family, tending to her sister, Primrose, and her grieving mother. The similarities between Katniss’ situation and that of Lawrence’s Oscar nominated character, Ree, in Winter’s Bone are remarkable and explain why she was probably the producer’s first choice to play this steely, strong-willed, remarkable young woman.

We discover early on that every year Panem hosts the Hunger Games, an annual tournament in which each district sends two teenagers, one boy and one girl, to fend for their lives – and their district’s honor – in a fight for survival. Only one person is to come out alive. The origins for this tournament are rooted in civil unrest over 74 years ago, and it is explained via some creepy propaganda that the games are meant to be a reminder that future outbreaks of civil unrest will not be tolerated.

At the annual Reaping ceremony, in which “volunteers” are chosen to represent the district, Katniss’ sister is selected. Anyone who has seen the trailers for the film know Katniss won’t stand for this, and directly volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. Another boy, named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), also gets selected, and the two are whisked off to the capitol city to fight. Along the way they meet plenty of new characters, including the political face for District 12, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the inspirational stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and the former District 12 winner turned mentor and drunk, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).

Katniss and Peeta find themselves in a brave new world in which the Hunger Games is a huge show, an entertainment spectacle to please the masses. While they and 22 other children are ushered into dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest competition, the world waits and watches, amused and bloodthirsty. None more so than the Games’ creator, Seneca (Wes Bentley), and the master of ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). And at the top of it all is the President of Panem (Donald Sutherland), who needs these Hunger Games to keep the people in line. It’s quite a frightening world for Katniss and Peeta to find themselves in, but they fight because there’s not much else for them to do.

The greatness of The Hunger Games lies in its ability to cut through all the exposition and find compelling human relationships in the midst of the dread and spectacle. Katniss is motivated by a need to protect others which makes her connections to Peeta, and another competitor named Rue, a girl about Primrose’s age from the equally desolate District 11, engaging and emotionally fulfilling. Director Gary Ross gets a lot of mileage out of how he develops the relationships between Katniss and these other characters.

Because of the strength of Katniss’ character, and of Lawrence’s riveting performance, The Hunger Games is an emotional powerhouse. The big moments get the reaction the movie’s seeking, and the little moments take on great significance.

The film also does an excellent job of painting this world Katniss lives in. Panem is similar to our world, yet remarkably different. District 12 has the feel of a 1930s mining town, right down to the clothing the people wear to the Reaping ceremony, which looks like it could have been leftover from small town folk around the turn of the 20th century. Yet, the Capitol city looks and feels so remarkably futuristic. Its color scheme is a virtual smorgasbord, its people dressed in the gaudiest of clothing. When the worlds collide, the visuals are sumptuous and electric, like watching Stormtroopers show up in The Grapes of Wrath.

But the movie has some issues, and I imagine they are more my own. My biggest concern is the lack of conversation about the implications of the Hunger Games themselves. We have characters behind the scenes talking about the purpose of the games, but never about whether it’s right or wrong to have them. Who thought of the idea to sacrifice the lives of innocent children by pitting them against each other in bloody combat? It’s a war metaphor, certainly, but people are always grappling with the morality of war and its effects on society. Are there protestors of the games? Anyone standing up against them, even if it is against the law to do so? I missed this in the movie, and craved it. Showing us the dissenters would have provided a bigger context for the games, and could very easily set up Katniss’ climatic decision in a more complex way.

My squabbles aside, The Hunger Games is a powerful film. It deserves to be seen by as many teenagers as possible. I hope they find as much to think about with this story as I did with those of Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury.

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