Review: The Hunger Games
The Cruelty is in the Close-Up
Stories like this face a tough paradox. How do you have a film – inherently a form of mass-audience spectacle – portray despicable organized bloodshed in a way that doesn’t try to get the viewer’s rocks off in the same way the spectacle it portrays does for the story’s blood-thirsty audience? In other words, when showing crowd-pleasing slaughter that’s meant to be horrifyingly inhumane, how do you void having it come off as, well, crowd-pleasing slaughter? It’s impossible to completely avoid this problem, but in the terrific dystopian fable The Hunger Games, Gary Ross and company find a way to mitigate it. They tighten the frame. It sounds like a simple strategy, but rarely has a simple framing aesthetic been so crucial to a film’s success. Ross dumps much of the wide-angle orgiastic spectacle common to today’s blockbusters and makes the people within his film the clear focus, and in doing so creates an intimate and gut-wrenching gladiator story that feels – and this is very important with such material – thoroughly disturbing.
I would venture to guess that at least two-thirds of The Hunger Games, consists of close-ups and close-medium shots, with much of those squared on the compelling Jennifer Lawrence as Kitnass Everdeen. In the story, based on a novel I should admit I haven’t read, Katniss is a resourceful teenager in the impoverished District 12, one of the outer districts in the future North American nation of Panem. Due to an uprising that took place at an undetermined point in the past, the wealthy and powerful Capital makes the districts pay penance every year by giving up one girl and one boy under the age of 18 to the Hunger Games, a last-child-standing death match watched on television like the Super Bowl. Katniss’ younger sister Prim is selected for the Games, and Katniss volunteers to go in her place. And away we go.
It’s not an entirely original concept, but it justifies itself through the details. Novelist Suzanne Collins helped with the screenplay, so it’s safe to assume most of her brushstrokes made it to the screen. The world of the film is built with an expert’s hand, taking us from the Appalachain-style poverty of District 12 to the garish Capital, where people have so much money and free time that they apply elaborate makeup to their faces every day and are constantly staging parties and events. Even being rich looks exhausting in Panem. The city is brought to extravagant life, but Ross still keeps his focus tight. We glimpse the grandeur of the Capital, but the film never gawks at it, often cutting away within a second from a wide crowd shot back to the faces of those about the be thrown into the ghoulish cauldron. If the film weren’t destined for mega-box office, Lionsgate might be disappointed that more of their effects budget didn’t make it onscreen. We spend a lot of time in the city though, watching Katniss and her D-12 partner Peeta train against academy-reared kids from the suburban districts and strain to appeal to the over-washed masses, hoping to earn some public goodwill before being sent to their probable deaths. The build-up is propulsive yet sickening in a sterile, ominous way. We watch helpless children being packaged and made up for slaughter, and the intimate focus on Katniss and her reactions to this grisly theater never lets us forget that.
The Game itself take up perhaps the last hour of the two-and-a-half hour film, and with the characters so well-etched and the stakes so clearly laid out, it is tense, agonizing, and tragic. There is a rush to the competition and thrills when Katniss uses her mind and her heart to deal with such an awful situation, but it’s never joyous. The film has been compared to the Japanese kid-killing flick Battle Royale, and while there are thematic similarities, The Hunger Games doesn’t revel in the deaths of these children, some more sympathetic than others but all trapped in a system that would prefer they be destroyed before they come of age. While the camerawork during the action scenes sometimes becomes too slapdash and over-cut, the PG-13 rating that probably motivated those decisions actually ends up a benefit. Ross gives us glimpses of blood and extreme violence but cannot and will not linger on it, and he utilizes wonderful touches to leave the worst bits to our imagination, for us to cringe from and lament. Cannon shots in the distance signal the death of a combatant, faces of the deceased appear in the artificial night sky like macabre trading cards, small gifts from sponsors drift in like manna from above when the circumstances seem hopeless. Again, it’s the details that make the story, and the details here are exact and their effects well-earned. There are no victors here, only survivors, and though the younger viewers in the theater with me cheered when certain children were dispatched (a rather unsettling side note to this whole affair), every death feels like a tragedy.
I’ve heard that the extra-narrative commentary in Collins’ novels is too pat, laid on thick for an audience she may feel the need to shout at. This may or may not be true, but the film strikes an elegant balance between touching modern real-world concerns and presenting a fully-realized and self-contained world. If one wants to see the pastiche of a Wall Street-fattened 1% oppressing a straining 99%, that’s certainly there, but the paradigm etched out in the film is not tethered to any one time nor is the film explicitly molded into a messy sledgehammer of societal commentary. The dynamics of Panem actually resemble the provincial subjugation tactics of ancient Rome far more than those of any theorized autocracy realistically rising from modern America. The commentary here is woven within a humanistic narrative. Tyranny and blood sport know no geographic or periodic borders. The focus in the film is always on the characters, their fear and their pain, the feelings of simple human beings caught up in the kind of unjust systems that rise and fall throughout history (we do get the feeling this one is heading for a fall), and in its historical omnipresence there are the seeds of universality. So if you want your 99% dystopian nightmare, this is too extreme to really resonate as a near-future warning siren. That’s too big a burden for this simple and elegant story to bear. Panem is its own animal, and once within it we can both be afraid and be touched by the fear and ultimate helplessness of these children.
Breathing life into the characters is an excellent array of actors. Lawrence, as mentioned before, is terrific, attaining a blend of vulnerability and authentic inner-toughness that recalls a young Sigourney Weaver. I can see how the charming and delicate Peete made hearts break in the book, and Josh Hutcherson fills those shoes nicely and provides a nice emotional anchor for Katniss along her journey (though I’m not sure her apparent love for him isn’t just a strategic feint to save both their lives). Woody Harrelson deserves special mention as the sole past winner from District 12 charged with mentoring Katniss and Peeta, at first appearing a cliché drunken cynic but revealing layers of hope, disgust, and compassion as he wanders uncomfortably through the nonstop socializing of the Capital, a “winner” but still a slave. Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland, and Elizabeth Banks are also very good in supporting roles (I didn’t even recognize Banks).
My strong reaction to The Hunger Games may be partly born of surprise. To put it simply, I didn’t expect the film to be so good. But giving it a day to let it settle, the threads and moments within the film still resonate, and the pleasure of finding a pop-lit series brought to the screen with the adult themes and authentic emotional heartbeat enhanced and intact remains. The frame stays tight, and despite the different time and the different world, the story feels real. I dare say it feels classic.