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Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, left), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, center) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, right) prepare for the violence of The Hunger Games. Photo by Murray Close. © Copyright 2010 - Lions Gate Entertainment.
As the excitement about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books peaked, some were already wondering what would be the next young-adult publishing phenomenon.
Several contenders have emerged, but it looks like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is the new victor.
It’s not only popular — it’s controversial. And it’s easy to see why. The Hunger Games is set in Panem, a futuristic dystopia built on the ruins of North America. There, “the one percent” — the rich, the superficial, the greedy — have decided to teach rebel factions of their society a lesson. Oppressors in Panem’s Capitol force each rebellious “District” to serve up two children between the ages of 12 and 18 each year, children who will fight to the death in the wilderness until there is only one victor.
Thus, 24 children armed with axes and swords and arrows charge into the woods and engage in a slaughter, while the rich and heartless watch it all through hidden cameras as a reality-TV show.
The Hunger Games focuses on 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen who, volunteering to fight in order to save her younger sister from certain death, joins the local baker boy — Peeta Mellark — in representing District 12. Together, they fight for survival in the woods, hoping that the cannon blasts that represent “eliminated” contenders will never ring out for them.
It’s a brutal story, and now it’s a big-screen movie bound for blockbusting success.
Response Managing Editor Hannah Notess and Contributing Editor Jeffrey Overstreet attended an advance screening, survived The Hunger Games, and lived to discuss it. Here is their email conversation about what they saw. (Caution: There are some “mild spoilers” in their discussion.)
Overstreet: Hannah, thanks for going to the sneak preview of The Hunger Games with me. I’m interested in your reflections on the movie, since you’ve read the books.
I haven’t read The Hunger Games or any of its sequels yet. But I was impressed. It’s a powerfully made movie — much more satisfying than Twilight (which I also saw without reading the book), and a stronger franchise kickoff than the first Harry Potter movie. I'm bothered by the way the film explores — or fails to explore — the complicated ethical dilemmas it presents. But at least it acknowledges those dilemmas. That makes it braver and more thoughtful than most American adventure movies.
Even though this is my first experience with Katniss and company, I experienced some déjà vu. Actress Jennifer Lawrence was impressive as Katniss. But I kept feeling like I’d seen her character before. In Winter’s Bone, one of my favorite films of 2010, Lawrence plays a girl who lives in a ramshackle house in the backwoods (like Katniss) who strives to protect her younger sister (like Katniss). Her father’s death has traumatized her mother and rendered her almost helpless (like Katniss’ mother). Thus, the poor girl must venture out into the cruel world of adults, commerce, and compromise, where she is forced to fight like an animal for the sake of her family (just like Katniss). It’s been a while since an actor has been asked to play such strikingly similar roles in such quick succession.
What did you think of the film as an adaptation of the book? Were director Gary Ross and his co-writers (Billy Ray and Collins herself) faithful in their adaptation? Are the themes of the book conveyed sufficiently in the film?
Notess: Jeff, it’s been a few years since I first read The Hunger Games, but I remember thinking, as I was reading, “This book is paced like a movie. This book wants to be a movie.” So I was glad to see that the filmmakers took time and care with the story. They knew a lot of readers will demand they get the details right.
You’re absolutely right about the parallels to Winter’s Bone, and Lawrence’s great performance in that film was one of the reasons I thought this had the potential to be a really good adaptation. Lawrence is not quite the Katniss I envisioned while reading, since Katniss is “olive-skinned,” not necessarily white, and I'd sort of pictured her as being malnourished, maybe a bit emaciated. Then again, we have plenty of malnourished and emaciated actresses on screen, and I am glad that Lawrence wasn’t forced to starve (I hope) for the role. She’s an interesting actress to watch, and I think she can hold our attention for two more films.
Certainly, elements in the book are pared down or eliminated. For instance, we don’t see much of Katniss’ interaction with her community in District 12, especially once she leaves home to participate in the Games. In the book, Katniss is pretty much already a grownup when it comes to having to provide for her family; she knows how to hunt, barter, and trade to survive. Once she leaves for the Capitol and the Games, Katniss is always aware that she is being watched, not just by the glamorous spectators in the Capitol but also by everyone back home. That's a huge part of her motivation.
I thought that Katniss’ awareness of being watched could have been more prominent in the way the film was made. The fact she knows she’s on camera, being broadcast throughout Panem, is part of every decision she makes to survive. There was a great moment where she climbs into a tree, hears a faint noise of a camera lens zoom, and realizes the camera is in the knot of the tree right next to her. Maybe it’s not the type of moment a filmmaker would want to do too much of; I suppose that could feel gimmicky. But the invasive level of surveillance isn't just important for the plot — it’s a huge theme of the book.
Katniss is very aware that her story is being edited, shaped, and used to reinforce an unjust political system. This is one of the biggest questions the book asks: What does it mean for such a violent spectacle to be broadcast in great detail, as entertainment?
Having not read the book, did you feel that the film was asking you this question? And how do you think The Hunger Games compares to other movies (e.g., The Truman Show) where characters find themselves under surveillance?
Overstreet: Yes, The Hunger Games reminds me of other films about our culture of voyeuristic entertainment and aggressively intrusive technology — The Truman Show, Minority Report, Gattaca — but no, Hannah, I don’t think this movie explores those questions as thoughtfully or insightfully as those.
We nod in grave recognition as the media in Katniss’ world give her a “reality show celebrity” makeover, because we can sense that the truth of her situation is being “edited.” We wince when she’s a guest on a talk show that’s been designed to make audiences feel falsely compassionate. Viewers think they’re encountering a real human being, when what they’re seeing has been manipulated to please them. And when Katniss is reminded, out in the wilderness of the game, that her every move is being watched and recorded, we’re reminded of our own closely monitored existence. We think of the cameras all over our cities (and college campuses), and about the ways in which our online activities are tracked. We’re also reminded that, as the songwriter Sam Phillips sang, “Pain is pleasure when it’s televised.”
But the film merely acknowledges these problems. It doesn’t provoke us to think about the cultural values that create such conditions, nor does it help us see how we might begin to change things.
The Hunger Games concludes in a very interesting place, one that seems carefully contrived so that those who want a “happy ending” can see one, and those interested in darker possibilities can look closer and see those too.
In my opinion, we should look closely, because the ending of this movie is deeply troubling! Katniss has made some very smart moves, but she has also compromised. She wears a “mockingjay” pin so that “nothing bad will happen to her” … but it has. She has been willing to “play along” with the game, acting dishonestly in order to give the audience some of what it wants to see. As a result, she has fractured one of her most important relationships, and set the stage for a different kind of competition … one that reminds me of Twilight.
That should give us pause. We should be forced to reflect on Katniss’ participation in the game, to see that the game might have cost her more than we realized. It should challenge us to think about how we all tend to change when we know we’re being watched, and how those changes might be preventing us from what is true, from what is best.
The Truman Show ended with a triumph of character over conformity, truth over entertainment. The Hunger Games does not.
And the filmmakers have fallen short in the same way. They’ve “airbrushed” the story's most troubling scenarios so that the movie is easier for you and me to watch. It’s more likely to become a blockbuster that way. This is a story in which children are forced into a game where they are required to kill each other or die, so it should disturb us. I think it should be R-rated. Some people protest violent movies, but violent movies are particularly destructive if they don’t portray the consequences of violence with honesty. As the camera minimizes our apprehension of the Games’ bloody cost, we’re more inclined to feel the adrenaline rush that we feel watching professional sports.
Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) presents Hunger Games contender Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) to his talk-show audience. Photo by Murray Close. © Copyright 2010 - Lions Gate Entertainment.
The Hunger Games’ storytellers want to make Katniss a hero who is very aware of how she’s being manipulated. They want to make her admirably rebellious against the System. That’s good. But the problem is, they can't find a shape for that rebellion that truly rejects the System’s methods. If she had refused to take up arms against other children, it would have been a very short story indeed. Instead, she employs violence in a way that we can rationalize: “Here, she's defending an innocent.” “Here, she doesn't intend to kill anybody, just to drive them away ... and, alas, there's a casualty.” “Here, she's fighting in self defense, not attacking.”
I’m afraid many who read these books and watch these movies will get no further than feeling relief when “bad kids” are eliminated and “good kids” move on to the next round.
Of course, I may be wrong. You’ve spent more time with these stories. Do you find Katniss to be a compelling, admirable heroine?
Notess: Jeff, I think your point about what Katniss’ willingness to play in the Games costs her gets at another discrepancy between the movie and the books.
In the books, Katniss clearly experiences physical, emotional, and psychological trauma because of both the violence she witnesses and the deception and violence she commits. She's deeply scarred, possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a conscript in an extremely unjust war.
When she goes to the Capitol — and I really wish this had been included in the movie — a big part of her “extreme makeover” involves removing her scars. As her skin is literally smoothed over, she is troubled by its healed appearance, because she is so deeply scarred on the inside.
By removing those moments from the movie, I think the filmmakers missed a big opportunity. Also, in the book, the makeover scenes are much more terrifying. I winced when I saw Katniss lying on a metal table, attended to by the Capitol’s stylists. I was afraid to see the makeover scene played out, but then the worst thing they did to her was wax her legs!
As the three-book series continues, Katniss gains more and more scars, and at some point, the filmmakers will have to show those scars. So to answer your question, I find Katniss, and the situation into which she’s forced, compelling, but no, I don't find her admirable. As you point out, the movie is very careful to show her committing violent acts only of the kind we rationalize during war. I do think the book asks us: How much violence is OK to commit in the name of “doing what you have to do to survive”?
I worship at a peace church and consider myself a peace Christian, or pacifist, so I believe the answer to this question for Christians is “none.” As a result, I'm interested in the few moments when characters resist the empire's oppressive narrative of violence. “I just don't want it to change me,” says Peeta, Katniss’ fellow contestant, before the games begin, believing he's entering the arena to die. “I keep wishing there was a way I could show that they don't own me.”
A death that says “You don't own me” is a martyr's death, whether you think of Christians in the Roman empire, Anabaptists after the Reformation, or the martyrs of the persecuted church today. Suzanne Collins has said in interviews that the arenas of ancient Rome were an inspiration to her — where gladiators fought to the death for the amusement of huge crowds. But you won't see any true martyrs in this arena, only gladiators. (Although one character is labeled a “martyr,” I think she's more accurately characterized as an innocent victim.)
And yet, there are a couple of moments in the film where we do see characters choose an act of nonviolent resistance. That may be an overstatement, but at the least, we see characters who have moved beyond the “I'm not here to make friends” reality-TV mentality and instead see their fellow competitors as human beings. It's those acts, not the killing, that grabs the attention of the Capitol authorities and of the people watching in the Districts in a big way.
“A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous,” says President Snow. The empire is much more threatened by not killing than it is by killing, and I think the filmmakers did a good job showing the power of those moments. Still, the film walks a very fine line between critiquing violent entertainment and simply existing as violent entertainment, as you point out.
A lot rides on the second and third movies. Will they delve into these questions of violence and suffering? Or will they skate along the surface, avoiding them to keep us entertained? Having seen the first movie, what would you hope or expect to see in the sequels?
Overstreet: Well, Hannah, if we must have sequels, I hope to see a director with more storytelling ambition and more patience. This movie moves so fast, it never gives us much chance to think about what we’re seeing. And we never get much of a feel for the important people in Katniss’ life — except for Gale, her best friend back home. (Gale is on screen just enough to develop a “love triangle” hook, which will appeal to the Twilight crowd and help bring moviegoers back for the sequel. “Team Gale!”).
I want to explore the worlds Collins has created — especially the Capitol. In this movie, we get a glance of a city that looks like a leftover from Star Wars, Episode One – The Phantom Menace, but we don’t get a good sense of the place.
And that brings me to another problem: The movie’s filmed almost entirely in close-up. This is a big-screen movie, but it looks like it was composed for the iPhone. Almost every shot is a close-up, or extreme close-up, of a character’s face. That’s fine for developing a sense of intimacy, and for appreciating nuances of the performances (like Stanley Tucci’s million-dollar talk-show-host grin). But I found it stifling after a while. I wanted to step back, take a deep breath, and really look around.
Even worse, the handheld video footage was excessive. It’s a style that’s become more and more popular, but it’s a cheat. It gives us a sense that we’re feeling excitement, but it disrupts our ability to see. If moviegoers are at all prone to motion-sickness, I think they should get a heavy warning about this movie.
In short, I want a more thought-provoking movie, both in terms of storytelling and imagery. (There isn’t a single image in this movie that’s likely to stick with me.) If you’re making a movie about children who are forced to kill each other, you’d better not treat your subject lightly. This could be a powerful call to the conscience of our culture. If it’s just another two hours of blockbuster excitement, luring us into cheering for one child over another, it’s done far more harm than good.
And besides … there are precedents for this kind of premise, precedents that really were thoughtful. In literature, we have William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies and two classic short stories — “The Lottery” and “The Most Dangerous Game.” On the big screen, there’s the Japanese cult classic Battle Royale, in which students are, yes, forced into a wilderness battle to the death, until there is only one survivor. (Film critic Peter Sobczynski called The Hunger Games a “Battle Royale with cheese.”)
The Hunger Games embraces the excitement, the suspense, and the troubling implications of all three, but remains discomfortingly shallow by comparison. So far, anyway. Let’s hope for better things.
Have you read the sequels? Is there some good storytelling ahead for filmmakers to adapt?
Notess: I have read the sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and I do see potential in them for the filmmakers to go deeper — into the world of Panem, into the troubling issues surrounding the games, and into the long-term harm inflicted on those who participate in violence. If the next two films don't go there, they’ll have missed a huge opportunity.
In the meantime, I think they’ve got a talented cast and they've made good steps toward building the world Collins imagines, especially in District 12 in the movie’s opening scenes. Katniss’ performance in the Games has caused quite a stir in Panem, and in the second and third films, we should see how her actions ripple out into her community and how she grapples with her new role as a “victor” and the attendant responsibilities.
For now, I think the responsibility lies with us as viewers — and readers — to engage in the tough conversations that the movie isn't quite willing to start.
Tell us what you thought in this moderated board. And see what others say.