It’s not everyday that a pop-culture phenomenon occurs, but in the past decade we’ve witnessed three of them.
First came Harry Potter, largely lauded as reigniting the children’s fiction industry and becoming the biggest pop-culture sensation since Star Wars appeared on the big screen in 1977. Next came Twilight, the definitive romance of this generation that demonstrated the slavish devotion and monetary power of the fangirl. And now we have Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which has recently reached Twilight and Harry Potter levels of fandom.
The first novel was published in 2008 and spawned two sequels. It was not immediately recognized as the next Harry Potter, but as more people read the book and Hollywood studio Lionsgate bought the film rights, the wheels of the hype machine got turning and now there are more than 30 million copies of the book in print. Add the revenue from those 30 million copies to the $152 million its film adaptation made opening weekend, and you’ll see that we have a genuine phenomenon on our hands.
The curious thing about this phenomenon is that it involves children killing children on television in a dystopian future America.
In the vaguely post-apocalyptic world of The Hunger Games, North America is now the nation of Panem, split into 12 districts controlled by the tyrannical Capitol. After a revolt from the districts was crushed by the Capitol, the rulers created a yearly competition where each district offers up one boy and one girl as tributes to fight to death in a televised competition known as the Hunger Games. This is The Most Dangerous Game meets reality TV, which isn’t a new idea, but is a compelling subject for a young-adult series.
The hero of the series is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who is wicked with a bow and arrow. When her little sister Prim is chosen as the tribute for District 12, Katniss volunteers to fight in her place.
Jennifer Lawrence, the young actress who was nominated for Best Actress in 2010 for Winter’s Bone, plays Katniss, and she really owns the material. Picking such a talented lead was one of the many correct choices the producers of The Hunger Games made. Unlike Twilight, one would be hard-pressed to nitpick the lead’s acting in this film.
The film as a whole is a solid, if a slightly underdeveloped and conventional, dystopian adventure. Director Gary Ross and fellow screenwriter Billy Ray did a good job of translating the world of Suzanne Collins’ (who also helped write the script) trilogy to the big screen. No familiarity with the source material is needed to understand the world of Panem. For a film that could have been bogged down in world building, the exposition is handled deftly.
This deliberate build-up to the games does a good job of establishing the characters, the world, its political dynamics and, most importantly, the stakes at hand for the contestants. Unfortunately it also causes the film to clock in at an unjustifiable 142 minutes.
The Hunger Games never tries to hide the fact that the central conflict revolves around children killing each other and it rightly understands that the sight of a teenage boy cutting down a preteen girl is shocking, even if rendered through the slightly censored lens of shaky-cam filmmaking. Still, one of the film’s biggest faults is that it doesn’t make more of the violence.
It is understandable that the filmmakers wanted to keep a PG-13 rating since the novel is aimed at young-adults and it would be ludicrous if the intended demographic was unable to see the film, but the shaky-cam filmmaking sanitizes some of the violence. A stable camera set-up would have been preferable, allowing the barbarity of the images happening on screen to speak for themselves. The sight of children killing each other shouldn’t have been made more palatable for audiences. It diminishes one of the film’s messages and is indicative of another problem with the film.
People who have read the novel tell me that one of its main techniques is to indict the reader alongside the corrupt citizens of the Capitol. Since the novel criticizes Panem for thriving off the Hunger Games and the civilians for revelling in the sight of children killing each other, Collins is morally implicating the reader for being thrilled by the scenes of violence. This would have translated especially well to film where viewers are viscerally thrilled by the sight of violence, but the filmmakers do nothing to explore this implication. Perhaps they didn’t want to implicate their audience along with the film’s villains in an effort to assure as broad an appeal as possible, but surely this caused the loss of some of the novel’s intentions.
Still, The Hunger Games is a thrilling movie. It’s well-acted, competently made and takes place in a fascinating world. While an occasional viewer might be disgusted by the idea of children fighting to the death, the overwhelming success of the novel and the film prove that this must not be a problem for most people.