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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: The Hunger Games

Fans of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy should be absolutely thrilled with this faithful adaptation of the first book of the series, directed by multiple Oscar-nominee Gary Ross and starring Jennifer Lawrence — in a role that is, in many ways, not terribly far removed from her role as Ree in Winter’s Bone, for which she garnered an Oscar nom for best actress. In both stories, we have a young girl who’s been forced by life circumstance to grow up too soon, with the responsibility of keeping a younger sibling alive thrust upon her by a weak, incompetent parent. And in both stories, we have a strong female lead who has no choice but to go on a dangerous journey, a daunting mission at which she stands little chance of succeeding, while having to outsmart ruthless people who would hurt or kill her. It’s a hero story, a journey story, a coming-of-age story, all wrapped up in a political and social allegory that’s, sadly, very relevant for the times in which we find ourselves living. And as executed here, it’s completely riveting and engaging.

The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic America, reinvented out of the ashes of devastation as Panem. There is a benevolent-but-also-evil dictatorship, a “Dear Leader” of sorts in the form of Donald Sutherland as President Snow, and a Capitol that controls everything (and whose citizens revel in a life of luxury, fine foods and fashion courtesy of the work of the citizens of the outlying Districts). There are 12 Districts, each of which is responsible for producing goods for a singular area. You’ve got your districts for Agriculture, Luxury Items, Fishing, Technology … and then there’s District 12, Coal, the poorest and most remote of the districts (its geographical area is somewhere in Appalachia). At some point, we learn through some relatively brief exposition, there was rebellion amongst the districts, a little class warfare, as it were. One might even say, an uprising of the 99% of this fictitious world; but that uprising was shot down when the Capitol ruthlessly brought the 12 districts in line, and completely obliterated the 13th along with all its citizenry, as an example of what happens when you rebel against Donald Sutherland.

But people are slow to learn and quick to forget, and so the Capitol came up with this fabulous idea to keep the boot-heel of the Capitol firmly on the throats of its citizenry: The Hunger Games, a yearly ritual in which each district, in a Lottery-inspired ceremony called The Reaping, must offer up one boy and one girl between the ages of 12-18 as “Tributes,” who are then forced to battle to the death until only one is left. It’s quite an honor. To make things even more sadistic, young people are “allowed” to put their name in the lottery draw more times in exchange for a year’s supply of grain and oil for themselves and family members. It’s a gamble: a year’s supply of grain to keep you from starving to death, in exchange for an increased possibility of almost certain death in the Hunger Games arena. And of course, it’s the poorer segments of the populace who must put themselves at greater risk by signing up for this little bonus, and the children of the Capitol are immune from the Reaping and see it all as a fun game (you know, kind of like how almost no one in Congress actually has children of their own fighting in the wars that they like to declare on other countries).

The heroine of this story is Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), who boldly steps up to volunteer as Tribute when her younger sister Prim’s name is drawn. To complicate matters further, the boy tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is the kind-hearted son of the baker who once showed Katniss a kindness by taking a beating for giving her a loaf of bread when she and Prim were starving. So Katniss owes Peeta, but now she will have to kill him — and 22 other Tributes — before they kill her. Lawrence and Hutcherson are backed up in all this by an impressive cast, including Stanley Tucci as the cheery blue-haired host of the televised Hunger Games (which every citizen is expected to watch), Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ stylist, Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, the Gamemaster, and Woody Harrelson, who’s fantastic as Haymitch Abernathy, District 12’s only winner in the 73 previous Hunger Games, and reluctant mentor to Katniss and Peeta.

I’m not going to dissect the similarities and differences between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, Koushun Takami’s 1999 Japanese pulp novel (adapted a year later into one of my favorite violent, equally pulpy moves of all time), which had a similar storyline about teens forced to battle to the death. Suffice it to say that yes, the general ideas and underlying themes of the two are similar, but while Battle Royale is good bloody dystopian fun, The Hunger Games has a better, more completely drawn story and interweaving of theme. And it has Katniss Everdeen, who’s a completely kick-ass female protagonist.

There are several reasons why The Hunger Games trilogy has connected so strongly with readers, not the least of which is that we read this story and we realize that its horrors are not actually as far-fetched as we might like them to be. Just look around us: Cage fighting, mixed martial arts, brutal hand-to-hand combat in its various forms. Child soldiers kidnapped and forced to kill — not only in Uganda, but in other parts of Africa and Asia as well. Do a search on YouTube for “teens fighting.” It’s bad enough that kids will fight and record it, but what does it say about human nature that these videos go viral? And then there’s the prevalence of reality shows, everything from American Idol to Chopped to Cupcake Wars to The Great Race, from Survivor to The Bachelor/Bachelorette. The evidence is pretty clear that we Americans — hell, we humans — love watching real people engage in conflict with other real people. It’s not much of a stretch from that to watching kids fight each other to the death, right?

But the theme underlying The Hunger Games, in both its book and movie versions, drills deeper than mere societal voyeurism. Its dystopian vision is about what might happen if a war destroyed society as we know it. In the world of Panem as Collins has envisioned it, societal vulnerability in the aftermath of mass civil war allows a central government to set up a system of controlling production and distribution — not in and of itself a bad thing ideologically speaking, but the execution here is flawed, in that the promised system of every family having what it needs not just to survive but to thrive gives way to a system in which a non-productive leisure class is supported by the poorer classes of the districts, who in turn are controlled by the government to ensure they don’t rebel and stop providing what the leisure class wants and needs. The idea of Tributes, of forcing those districts to sacrifice a son and a daughter each year, is a reminder to the citizenry that the power of life, death — indeed, whether you have a future at all, as represented by the forced taking and murder of two young people from each district — is controlled by forces so powerful you dare not question or complain, even as your own child is led to his or her almost certain death.

Ultimately, though, it’s the choices Katniss makes when thrown into this life-or-death competition not of her own devising that sets the tone not just for the first book, but for all the upheaval that follows in the next two. Underneath its blood sport and its PG-13-level graphic depictions of violence, this is a philosophical tale that’s both relevant, and reflective of society as we’re living in it today. It says to us: This is not as far-fetched as it might seem on the surface. No, it’s really not. And that, my friends, is more disturbing than any fictitious violence in this film.

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8 Responses to “Review: The Hunger Games”

  1. Howard A. Landman says:

    Fiction? I already participated in a lottery where the selected were involuntarily sent off to fight, and sometimes die. Only, we called it “the draft”.

  2. Kim Voynar says:

    Howard: Amen.

  3. K Stricker says:

    “. . . a central government to set up a system of controlling production and distribution — not in and of itself a bad thing ideologically speaking.”

    Thanks, I laughed at that line so hard I have to find some clean pants.

  4. Cara C says:

    “. . . a central government to set up a system of controlling production and distribution — not in and of itself a bad thing ideologically speaking.”

    Are you kidding? That type of system has repeatedly resulted in terror, oppression, and systematic mass murder.

  5. Kim Voynar says:

    K Stricker and Cara,

    I absolutely think that the philosophical idea behind socialism — the idea that a just society SHOULD be able to find a way to distribute goods and wealth fairly and equitably, with each person having all they need, and contributing what they can, is perfectly reasonable. As an abstract idea of how a utopian society might look, nothing wrong with that.

    And Cara, socialist ideas been implemented in different ways (with varying degrees of success) without terror, oppression or systematic mass murder (see: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Great Britain, etc). There’s a difference between socialism, communism and dictatorships.

    If everyone in a true socialist community played fair, taking only what they needed and no more, and contributed all that they could and no less, the socialist utopian view could absolutely work. Key word being IF. The problem isn’t the idea, it’s how to implement that idea given that human nature is oppositional to the ideals needed to pull it off.

    The Hunger Games presents a dystopian view of the world, — one that, unfortunately, is probably far closer to what reality would look like than the utopian vision that the Capitol in the books (and movie) presents to its people. The Capitol is the “protector,” it cares for all its citizens — that’s the PR spin. Of course at the end of the day it comes down to greed and power and corruption, and the “have”s in the Capitol “having” while the “have not”s in the poorer Districts suffer and are exploited. Same old, same old.

  6. cbeez says:

    the movie was terrible. shaky camera when it shouldn’t be shaking so much it made me queasy, endless close-ups, I felt like the movie was rushing through the story, no character development, generally didn’t buy into the whole thing. 1 of 5 stars. professional reviewers will only like it because the feel they should, and so they can sell more tickets.

  7. Kim Voynar says:

    cbeez, where on earth would you get the impression that professional critics have any stake at all in how many tickets are sold for a movie?

  8. Nic says:

    Thought it was just terrible. From the irritating shaky camera work to the lack of character development, This is what is passing for moviemaking now?
    Worst of all was the really AWFUL production and costume design. It was so bad that it distracted from what little the story had going for it. Is the future going to really look like an RV from the eighties? And those wigs? Ugh, this piece of work makes bad television look good. I feel sorry for kids being short changed and barely challenged or amazed. The equivalent of a McDonalds Happy Meal when it should have been a rare prime rib.

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