The Hunger Games
In 2000, Koushun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi created a manga called Battle Royale, which was later adapted into a film by the same name. This was a brutal comic about a group of school children forced to fight to the death in an elaborate outdoor arena, with unhesitantly depicted scenes of gore, sex, rape, and essentially anything you can imagine to make the situation as harrowing as possible. The Hunger Games is a far toned down version of Battle Royale, which means it is still an intense and violent work, just one that lacks the more visceral elements that make Battle Royale such a difficult manga to get through. It is for mass Western audiences who don’t like leaving a theater feeling like they need to shower or see a priest after the experience. However, The Hunger Games should not be viewed as a watered-down version of its inspiration. Though it is certainly a safer watch, it keeps its core elements intact and in fact may be a purer version than its predecessor, which frequently seems to revel in its mayhem.
The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America, in which an enormous, technologically advanced Capitol reigns over twelve small and poor outlying districts, known simply as Districts 1 through 12. As a matter of tradition stemming from a punishment for the districts’ uprising long ago, every year two children from ages twelve to eighteen are randomly selected from each of the twelve districts and forced to fight to the death in artificially constructed outdoor arenas that span miles. These “Hunger Games,” as they are called, are nationally televised events and are the nation’s most eagerly anticipated event every year. We follow main character Katniss Everdeen, a self-reliant girl from District 12, as she volunteers in order to spare her sister, prepares for the event, and, finally, attempts to survive the year’s competition.
Perhaps obviously, The Hunger Games, like Battle Royale, is a metaphor for the teenage years of our own culture, where our children attempt to survive the frequently cruel trials of high school and peer acceptance. It is also about tradition, however, as the Hunger Games themselves no longer serve any purpose of penance - which was what brought them into being in the first place - but rather to uphold the tradition of the games themselves, which serve the vague purposes to “bring us together” and help us remember the past so as to “safeguard our future.” Combined, these elements of tradition and teenage cruelty form the film’s overarching theme, which concerns the way social order forces our children to hurt each other. The Hunger Games are still a metaphor for the high school years, but this film emphasizes the basis of teenagers’ occasional desire to hurt each other. That basis is nothing more than social hierarchy. Just as bullying, in its mildest to harshest forms, is a result of social elitism, the Hunger Games are also an enforcement of a social elitism. The far more prosperous Capitol of this nation is able to enforce the playing of the games by leveraging their strength and superiority over the districts, which are simply too weak to contend with the will of the reigning hegemony.
The Hunger Games depicts teenage cruelty in a more primarily physical, rather than emotional, manner. Children stab each other, slice each other, and break each other’s necks, berating the weaker peers as they do so. Of course there are those that do not so readily give in to this violence, and, naturally, the main character is one such character. Katniss is our point of reference in the film, a character who does not want to be in the games any more than we would, who only kills those who threaten to kill her first, and who generally wants to survive more through avoiding violence rather than through killing off others to actively secure her victory. We feel for her because she is placed in a horrible situation and because she responds to such things exactly as we would. She is neither a stereotypical or overblown heroine, nor is she a cold antihero. She is here to be a relatable character rather than a spectacle, and as such, she brings a level of truthfulness to the movie, which is here to tell a story rather than present action.
It’s refreshing to see a film like this presented in this kind of way, not delighting in the many superficial dynamics at its disposal but instead using them to develop the characters. However, there is a problem here, in that Katniss undergoes little development throughout the movie. While she does experience a personal journey relating to her feelings for her male Hunger Games counterpart from her district, there is little else she goes through. She is never forced to make any truly difficult decisions throughout the movie. Because of this, her and our understanding of the world is not challenged. Her challenge is purely to remain emotionally and physically intact, not to traverse any morally uncertain ground. So, while we feel for her through the duration of the movie, we ultimately come out of it with no new perspective on things.
Additionally, while the film does well to set up its back story in full before getting to the primary plot point (the Hunger Games themselves), it tends to lag while getting there. There is a significant amount of time spent with the characters preparing for the games and discussing practical issues such as survival and sponsorship from companies who can provide supplies to aid in their survival. Unfortunately, there is only sparse character development during this part of the film, and the matters of practicality have little bearing on our understanding of Katniss or of her experience in the games. Furthermore, the issue of sponsorship is given significant weight and is constantly referred to by Katniss’s mentor, yet the sponsorship concept is never fully explained, and once we get to the games, it rarely comes into play. These parts of the movie have a respectable purpose: to reinforce the realism of the situation. Unfortunately, this portion of the film does not present any interesting challenges for the characters. In effect, it becomes drawn-out exposition.
I often gauge a film’s aesthetic success by whether I would go back and watch it again. In this case, I would not - not because it is a bad film by any means but because it offers few subtleties to uncover, few moments of emotional epiphany, and only a light dose of originality. However, if I happened to find myself watching it a second time under whatever circumstances, I would not mind doing so. It is well made, it offers no cheap thrills, and every bit of it is geared toward strengthening its core story, even if it is not one hundred percent successful all the time. The Hunger Games is of the most genuine type of film: one that never includes an element simply because of that element’s appeal. It wants only to tell its story.