Pondering a few imponderables
How you feel about “The Hunger Games” will depend, of course, on how you feel about children murdering children. How you feel about the book, or the movie, will depend on how you feel about the way the book, or the movie, handles that subject.
The movie, currently holding at the top of the box office, hews very closely to the story line of Suzanne Collins’s Young Adult novel. As with the Harry Potter movies, there has been a great deal of streamlining (of course) without doing any harm to the dramatic arc of Collins’s story. Director Gary Ross has tweaked a few elements, and added just a few more, and the result is a worthy version of a horrifying dystopian vision.
For those who haven’t read the book (and I must say copies are rather hard to come by around here), a bit of catch-up: In a not-too-remote future, after some sort of cataclysm, North America is home to a country called Panem, with 12 districts ruled by a Capitol. In the wake of an earlier rebellion, the Capitol has devised the Hunger Games, wherein a boy and a girl, between ages 12 and 18, are chosen from each district by lot and forced to fight the other children to the death in a huge, climate-controlled arena.
I was initially horrified by the synopsis, but I resolved to read the book before running away from it, because I felt sure that Collins had some sort of savage political satire in mind, and indeed she does. Since I haven’t read the next two books in her trilogy, let me just say that it’s fairly obvious that the first book is a careful set-up, a backstory to a future rebellion against the stifling rule of the effete, dangerous, oppressive Capitol.
The parallels to ancient Rome are almost too easy: the indolent, wealthy, chattering classes who have been so desensitized to pain and suffering that they follow it with breathless glee on huge video screens are an obvious analogue to the Roman Games, though the audience in the Colosseum included paupers as well as nobles. Could there be a more current application, with poorer voters distracted by manufactured crises to divert them from the real issues? Hmm…
The casting is excellent, and the actors bring a tremendous amount of understated compassion to their roles, from Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson as the tributes from the starving District 12, to Stanley Tucci as the blue-haired broadcast host who interviews all the entrants and sympathizes, sort of, with each one. Lawrence’s and Hutcherson’s performances are precise and moving as the two kids who must pretend to be in love in order to survive; and as in the book, it’s only subtly suggested that the whole thing isn’t an act.
What’s also not to be denied is the movie’s art direction, which fairly dazzles with the Capitol’s Post-Modern-Art-Deco-You-Name-It-Wowee splendor. The dining car of the magneto train that transports the Tributes (read Victims) to the Capitol is posh enough, but the Capitol itself is as spectacular as Queen Amidala’s Naboo, which was stolen wholesale from James Gurney’s brilliant book “Dinotopia,” but who’s counting? The wealthy citizens show off a rainbow of saturated-color garb and saturated-color pets, including pink borzois. With all the males sporting a baroque fantasia of whiskers, it’s no wonder that the credits list about fifty hairdressers.
Here’s the only thing I hate about the movie, and about Ross’s direction, and it’s something I’ve hated for about a decade. It’s the whole hand-held camera jerkiness that’s supposed to be modern and cool, and makes me sick to my stomach, and unfortunately, this movie has almost nothing but. There certainly are times when this works, as during the tense hunting scenes in the forest, but why the quiet scenes between two characters should shake and tremble escapes me. But, realistically, Katniss’s on-screen hallucinations when she’s been stung by the Tracker Jackers look exactly like the effects of really bad acid cut with speed and strychnine. Or so I’ve been told.
The helter-skelter jerkiness of the photography and editing makes it hard to focus on any one thing you might want to study, but it also makes it hard to see the details of the brutal deaths, which is probably a good thing, though it feels like cushioning to get a PG-13 rating. It also feels like looking at everything through the confused eyes of kids who are constantly bombarded with new sensory input they can’t process, so I suppose there’s a justification on artistic grounds.
One may quibble about whether this story is Science Fiction, Fantasy, or something else. The Capitol’s technological abilities far outstrip anything we’re capable of today, but it’s easy to see how they’d get there from where we are now. A Hard Science Fiction narrative would carefully explain (or at least give hints) as to how this technology developed, which Collins mostly doesn’t bother to do. The movie goes further in this direction: the control room for the Arena is studied in detail, and its 3D manipulations, which become manifest in real space, are breathtaking. If you want to retire early you should invest in the company that produced them.
How to label it? I’d go with Apocalyptic Satire. One of our handiest designations in recent Science Fiction, it’s a genre that comes closer and closer to how we’re looking at current events. There’s no need for the Rapture when we’re coming so near to destroying ourselves.