The Hunger Games movie is the first adaptation in a trilogy of novels written by Suzanne Collins. The teenage demographic of the series, as well as its sudden popularity at the box office, have inevitably resulted in comparisons with other popular young adult movie/book franchises: Twilight and Harry Potter. Viewers will also have noticed a striking resemblance between the plot of The Hunger Games and the Japanese book and film adaptation Battle Royale (2000), which Collins claimed she had never heard of until after her book was written. Viewers are keen to discuss The Hunger Games movie in relation to all these previous films, and of course fans of the novels devote much attention to how closely the film manages to stick to the narrative and the essence of the book, but it’s also worth taking a step back from all the comparisons and analysing The Hunger Games as a stand-alone piece of cinema.
The film is set in a futuristic dystopia, where America has been split into 12 districts, all controlled by the wealthy elite in the Capitol. The Capitol choose to punish the districts for an earlier rebellion by forcing one young boy and girl from each district to participate in the annual Hunger Games: a twisted play on modern reality shows, where the chosen children are forced to fight to the death until only one winner remains, for the entertainment of TV viewers. Our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), is one of these “tributes”, along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the second tribute from their district.
Thematically, this film covers a lot of ground in its two and a half hours. It makes a comment on reality television programmes, which often involve spectators at home gaining enjoyment through watching the suffering of those taking part, and turns the idea of tuning in to these shows in to something morbid. The juxtaposition between the cheerful, well-groomed presenters discussing the show in the studio, and the action in the arena really highlights how far removed they are. But this idea of pitting people against each other isn’t just something that’s relevant to contemporary culture, it also clearly references the act of gladiatorial combat back in Roman times – showing us perhaps how little our society has moved on in some ways. There’s another level of moral complexity to this story though. By making Katniss the protagonist of the story, aren’t we therefore willing her to win throughout? And, by extension of this, aren’t we willing the other children to die? The audience, by the very act of going to the cinema and watching the film and becoming invested in it, becomes just another member of the Capitol, seeking enjoyment through other people’s suffering and violence.
The film also addresses the ridiculousness of contemporary fashion and trends, by exaggerating the focus of members of the Capitol on their individual appearances. The wealthier members of society are almost always shown in theatrical make-up with brightly coloured hair and clothing. We also see that Katniss and Peeta need to conform to the Capitol’s ideas of ‘fashion’ if they are going to succeed. Through the character of Haymitch, district 12′s last Hunger Games victor, the spectator also learns that violence doesn’t pay. Although he gained all the wealth and glory that comes with winning the games, his alcoholism indicates that he has trouble adjusting to his new life and to the guilt associated with what he’s done. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read the rest of the trilogy, this might serve as foreshadowing for what the winners of this Hunger Games can expect for the future.
The Hunger Games successfully pulls on the heartstrings of the viewer, particularly with regards to the character of Katniss’ sister, Prim. The comparisons between Rue, the youngest competitor in the arena, and Prim are made obvious through the way that Katniss looks after Rue in a sisterly manner and sings to her in the same way that we see her singing to her sister at the beginning of the film. Since the story’s based on teen-fic, there is of course an element of romance to the story too, but the blossoming relationship between Katniss and Peeta is made all the more complicated when the viewer isn’t sure if their feelings are real or simply faked for the television cameras.
Ultimately, the film is aimed at a young audience, and in order to make it suitable for such an audience certain restrictions had to be placed on the story. Katniss herself is shown to only kill when her life that moment depends on it, and there’s not as much violence in the movie as you would expect from the plot. Even so, the action in the ring is fairly grim viewing, but the film would certainly have benefitted from devoting more attention to the struggle for survival in the arena than from the prelude to it. The handheld camera constantly whipping between characters occasionally makes it hard to distinguish the action, and jars somewhat in comparison to the highly polished Hollywood sheen that effects the mise-en-scene of the rest of the film. Fans of the book have complained that we don’t get as much insight into Katniss’ emotions in the film, something which is fairly inevitable since we have lost the narration that we get in the book, and there’s only so much you can convey through facial expression alone. Although clichéd and predictable at times, The Hunger Games – (unpopular opinion alert, I’m sorry) – comes out on top in the battle of the teen movie franchises against Harry Potter and Twilight simply because of its dystopian themes and potential to make young people think about real world issues.