Academic Writing

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

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After what seemed like an endless stream of casting and filming news, the film adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins’ massive trilogy, The Hunger Games, has finally been released.  Telling the story of a dystopic and post-apocalyptic future where North America has been transformed into a new country called, Panem.  Divided into 12 districts, the country’s teenagers are forced to compete in an annual televised, and literal, fight to the death as punishment for the now defunct 13th District’s uprising. 

Every year a boy and girl from each district between 12 and 18 years of age are chosen at random in what has become known as “The Reaping” to be named participants in the games.  The Capital administers the games and treats their “tributes” as celebrities, as though the opportunity of becoming a martyr is some sort of noble position.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a hardened 17-year old from District 12 volunteers herself when her younger sister is chosen to participate.  She and fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutchinson) head to the capital to face their fate.

Filmed in a blue-tinted sepia aesthetic, District 12 is one of the poorest districts and as the visual landscape offered during the reaping in District 12 was so reminiscent to footage, both original and Hollywood-made, of The Holocaust.  Whether intentional or not, the similarities are clear.  As the children of District 12 are herded into their lines for the reaping, given the medical examinations needed to prove their identities and are unable to escape this prescribed role they’ve been assigned the file into the courtyard of the government quad like sheep to the slaughter to hear their names being called.  I couldn’t help but make this comparison watching people being forced to give their lives as martyrs whether they wanted to or not.

Upon arrival to the Capital Katniss and Peeta immediately find that they are on very different ground from what they’re used to.  Unlike the hardened faces of the coal mining community from whence they come, they are greeted with overly made up and adorned faces of Capital inhabitants.  The wealthiest of the districts, these privileged citizens seem to only concern themselves with fashion, food and taking enjoyment from the sport of the games and placing bets on which tribute will come out victorious.  Katniss and Peeta are whisked into a make-over area where they are plucked, waxed and shined up to be presentable on television.  This scene was very “we’re not in Kansas anymore” similar to when Dorothy et al were buffed and curled before meeting Oz.  How far we’ve come, huh?

As we peer into the world of Panem and the citizens of its 12 districts we are looking into a world that, while might seem very foreign to us, it has a number of similarities that we as a society might not be willing to admit.  Each district has its role in society.  While District 12 are the coal miners, and on the lowest rung of the social totem pole, there are others responsible for luxury items, grain, agriculture, lumber, etc.  Everyone has their role and purpose to making sure the country survives.  In contrast, it seems that the citizens of the capital control all the power and have the easiest lives because of the hard work the other districts contribute.  They are, one could consider, the 1%.  Despite this, and as much as we viewers would like to distance ourselves from them and their grotesque features and outlandish fashion choices, their obsession with the games and the level of joy and entertainment they garner from watching this ultimate reality television show, they are more similar to us than we’d like to think.

Additionally, cinema has a long tradition of playing with one’s voyeuristic needs, just watch any Hitchcock film, and this one is no exception.  What’s great about staring at someone in a movie is that there’s no risk of getting caught.  The characters are not going to “catch” you gawking at and judging them.  Most notably I found the citizens of The Capital the object of my voyeurism.  These people adorned in the most overly stylized and outrageous manners are hard to look away from.  But the harder I looked at them, the more I realized I was looking into the future of “us.”  We as a society are on a path headed right into the Capital, both from a social/cultural perspective and a cosmetic/aesthetic perspective.   The people of the Capital are by far the richest in Panem.  They dress lavishly and, to them, beautifully.  Seeing what they have accepted as the aesthetic norm initially is shocking, but as I continued to watch I understood how they could have gotten to that place as we are slowly approaching ridiculousness ourselves.  Just turn on any Hollywood movie featuring a woman over 45 and it’s like you are watching stretched and pulled plastic figurines strutting across the screen.  Pop stars are constantly trying to one-up each other with what looks more bizarre, hiding under the veil they call art.  Lady Gaga? Ke$ha? Nikki Minaj?  They are our “Capital” citizens.  While the people of The Capital might be an extreme, the books and now film are definitely commenting on where too much of a focus on physical looks will take us.

Secondly, and I think the more important message is the cultural effects of where our reality television obsessed culture is headed.  Ceasar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the Master of Ceremonies and perennial host of The Hunger Games is a vapid sycophant that unfortunately is not foreign to the television screen.  With his blue hair and shiny veneers he preens across the stage grasping for the attention of those watching him and feigning sympathy when the narrative calls for it.  The people of Panem are held in rapt attention as he narrates The Hunger Games as they are televised nationally across the nation on every screen imaginably (oddly, the people all seem to be without smartphones, rather screens magically appear on walls, windows and other surfaces so even though it’s not in the palm of their hands they are able to watch anywhere they want).  They cheer and swoon as children are sent to their deaths and celebrate as victors are presented in the most morbid and literal version of “Elimination.” 

Moreover, throughout the “Games” the children also must remember that they are in fact on television and while fighting for their lives they must create telegenic personalities to ensure they are sent medicine, weapons and other gifts from “sponsors.”  The premise initially seems outlandish, and a gut instinct would want me to think that this is ridiculous and would never happen.  But upon further consideration we are almost there in a sense.  While people are not literally killing each other (although the tragic suicide of one “character” from The Real Housewives franchise is an exception), reality TV is figuratively doing just that.  Bad behavior from people on reality programs is encouraged for ratings.  On-screen cat fighting, name calling and general conflict are insisted upon by networks and producers if it means pulling in more eyeballs.  Appealing to the lowest common denominator is celebrated and encouraged in our current landscape of reality television.  So it only makes sense to keep pushing that common denominator down as people get bored with the status quo, so it almost seems like a natural progression to take it to the next level, which The Hunger Games does.

There is little shown of the reactions by the other districts from around Panem, other than The Capital, but it is made clear that not all of them are in support of these annual games.  While the children from District 1 are prepped for this their entire lives, being called “Careers,” and celebrate the opportunity to live up to what they’ve been primed for since infancy, others mourn the loss of their children.  In District 11, after one of theirs is killed, we watch the riots that occurred while lawmakers and “peacekeepers” tried to quell the revolts of the people who were rebelling against what they considered to be immoral behavior on the part of the government.  The so-called peace keepers sprayed them with an unidentified substance, (maybe it was just water, but it’s unclear), physically intimidated them and did whatever else was needed to do in order to “keep the peace.”  When people aren’t permitted to protest what they see as immoral what kind of humanity do they have?  Who is the immoral party in this situation? Are the inmates STILL running the asylum?  These are important issues our country has been facing for decades, long before Ken Kesey asked it in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and clearly ones we are still grappling with.

Interestingly, and similar to themes common in the 1950s cinema and then again in the 1980s, this film tackles the issues of what happens when adults, those supposed to be the caregivers, mentors and protectors of children are in fact posing more of a threat to them than any other influence.  In addition to the direct danger the government is putting them in to be pawns in their games, Katniss faces an ineffectual mother as she has been emotionally vacant since her father’s death and even her mentors, Haymitch who is more often drunk than he is sober and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), her Capital representative who looks like Katie Perry met Jem and the Holograms, is more concerned with public appearances than actual survival.  The kids have to save themselves because there is no one else to do it for them.  This is also a story about children staying true to their own values and not giving in to social pressures of immorality.  There’s a lot of talk these days of children inheriting a flawed economy and having to deal with the fallout from the mistakes the adults around them made, so it’s no wonder these themes would be permeating our popular culture.

Any adapted film has to unfortunately cut out what sometimes feels like important details and plot points, and The Hunger Games is no exception, this adaptation works very well as a film.  It maintains the dark and dystopic overtones of the books and was not “glammed up” to fit Hollywood’s standards.  The topic of killing children could be easy to shy away from and gloss over, however director Gary Ross tackles it with cinematic grace and sensitivity without losing the gravitas of the moments of slaughter.  My one criticism of the film is that it felt very rushed.  Clocking in at around 2.5 hours, it’s hard to imagine it would feel like more time was needed, but it was.  I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be enough time to really get to know some of the more peripheral, yet still important characters.  One of my favorite casting calls was Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, and I feel robbed that he did not have enough screen time.  Even Gale (Liam Hemsorth) wasn’t as present in the film as he was in the books.  His relationship with Katniss didn’t have a chance to get fully fleshed out, which is think is unfortunate especially given how important their background becomes in the upcoming two books. 

The Hunger Games offers a glimpse into a worst-case-scenario situation for where a media/conflict/looks based society can head.  It’s an extreme case of fiction and dystopia, but it’s also our responsibility to make sure it stays that way.

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