Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Hunger Games (Lionsgate/Color Force, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I finally watched The Hunger Games, the DVD of which we’d had sitting around here for a month or two but which we held off because Charles and I had zipped through the books quickly through the summer and then ended up with an ambivalent feeling about the film: would it be as good? Would we get hung up because the characters weren’t as we imagined them from Suzanne Collins’ pages? (She’s in second place on the screenwriting credits and all three names are separated by the word “and” instead of an ampersand, indicating that Gary Ross, the film’s director, wrote the first draft of the screenplay, Collins wrote the next draft and Billy Ray was the last writer to work on it before the shoot.) In case you’ve been living in a village in the Afghan mountains for the last three years, The Hunger Games is the sensationally successful first novel in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins (the others, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, are also — inevitably — being filmed, and like the final Harry Potter and Twilight books, Mockingjay is being milked to provide two films instead of just one) set in a dystopian future in which civilization throughout the U.S. has collapsed except in the Northeast, where a ruthless dictatorship of the 1 percent called “Panem” has established control over a gated capital city, called simply “The Capital,” and 12 districts which supply all the essentials — foodstuffs, raw materials, industrial labor — and whose people are kept in a state of enervated penury, sort of like the way most human “civilizations” have behaved throughout history. The name “Panem” — the Latin word for bread — comes from panem et circenses (“Bread and Circuses”), the formula the Roman Empire had for keeping its citizens happy, and Collins reinforces the parallel by giving virtually all the Capital’s residents (save for the chief of state, President Snow), names of real-life ancient Romans (Caesar, Cinna, Seneca, Flavius, Octavia, etc.), but her ruling elite is a lot bigger on circenses than panem and the actual lives of the people in the Districts are closer to those of the proles in George Orwell’s 1984 (a book that has influenced virtually every dystopia written since — the pre-Orwell dystopias, like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, were far less big on privation than the post-Orwell ones have been — and has been drawn on by writers with as different ideological agendas as Ray Bradbury and Ayn Rand), carefully eking out a living while the wealth of their resources and their labor is sucked out to feed the bloated world of the Capital.

Seventy-four years before the events of this first movie in the cycle, the Districts organized a rebellion; District 13, where the regime’s nuclear weapons were manufactured, was obliterated altogether (at least so we’re led to believe in the first part of the trilogy) and the other 12 districts were forced to surrender one boy and one girl, 12 to 18 years old, each year for the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are a combination gladiatorial duel and Most Dangerous Game-style human hunt (the debt The Hunger Games owes to The Most Dangerous Game was considerably more obvious in the film than it was in the books) in which the 24 sacrifices — “tributes,” they’re called (once again Collins appropriated part of the imperial vocabulary of ancient Rome) — are locked in an elaborate arena whose design, determined by a Capital staffer called the “Gamemaker,” is changed year to year. They are subjected to various privations from the environment as well as each other, and in the end all but one of them die (either they kill each other or they’re taken out by natural causes or booby traps built into the arena by the Gamemaker) while the survivor is hailed as “Victor” and gets to live in relative comfort in a house built in one of the Districts for that purpose. The Hunger Games are televised throughout Panem and the people are forced to watch whether they want to or not — the people doing the forcing are the Capital’s security police, the “Peacekeepers,” who wear white riot suits similar to those worn by Darth Vader’s minions in Star Wars — while the people in the Capital have a gay old time (some of them in more ways than one) watching the spectacle and betting on who will win.

What struck me about The Hunger Games the novel when I read it is that Collins was equally adept at writing serious fiction with a social/political message and creating gripping action scenes; she told all three novels from the point of view of the central character, 17-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from District 12 (its industry is coal, and her father died in a mining accident while her mother was an herbalist and healer — though the film doesn’t tell you what happened to her dad except in an ambiguous flashback while Katniss is in the arena and it doesn’t mention her mom’s medical skills at all), who volunteers for the Hunger Games to take the place of her 12-year-old sister Primrose (Willow Shields), whose name is drawn at what’s called the “Reaping” — where the “tributes” are picked at random. The film doesn’t explain why some people’s names are in the drawing more than once: the rulers have set up a system called “Tesserae” in which families can obtain badly needed extra food rations in exchange for allowing their kids to be entered in the Hunger Games more than once; Katniss’s hunting partner and sort-of boyfriend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), is entered 42 times. Until she’s picked for the Hunger Games, Katniss has survived largely through her skills as a huntress, particularly with a bow and arrow; she and Gale sneak into the forbidden woods just outside District 12 (the fence between the district and the woods is supposed to be electrified, but it’s fallen into disrepair and is not charged) and kill small animals, which they trade to local shopkeepers for bread and other foodstuffs — which is how Katniss has met Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has a crush on her (he once gave her an extra bread roll as a token of his esteem) and ends up her co-tribute from District 12 in the Hunger Games.

The movie couldn’t help but be different from our expectations of the book in several particulars — both Charles and I imagined Katniss as considerably blonder and more physically formidable than Jennifer Lawrence (ironically Lawrence is naturally blonde but had her hair dyed black for the role, giving her a striking resemblance to the late alternative AIDS activist Christine Maggiore in her younger days) and I imagined Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only surviving Hunger Games winner from District 12 who’s supposed to mentor Peeta and Katniss but who’s of little help because his post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience has led him to alcoholism, a bloated Falstaff-type drunkard instead of the surprisingly healthy physical specimen we see before us, with only a windburned face and tousled hair indicating the long-term effects of his thirst. (Harrelson is a vegetarian in real life and insisted that his servings of the sumptuous feasts the sacrifices-to-be get in the Capital not include meat dishes.) Also I think the movie should have had a longer prologue depicting daily life in District 12 so it could have duplicated the visceral shock Collins describes in the book experienced by Katniss as she compares the luxury and waste of the Capital to her own austere existence back home — but even with deletions (and a few additions, including a riot in District 11 — a portent of a coming revolution — which Collins didn’t describe until book two) this film came in at 142 minutes in length and the prologue I would have wanted would have made it even longer. The Hunger Games as it stands is a marvelous movie, much of it shot with a deliberately jumpy camera in order to bring us into Katniss’s world without the device of a voice-over narration (it’s a technique actually invented by Abel Gance for the 1926 Napoleon — he wanted the sequences of the French Revolution to look like newsreel footage of the actual event would have if movies had existed then — and the most recent director to use it was Kathryn Bigelow in The Hurt Locker, also to bring us into the minds and experiences of a troop of people in combat facing life-or-death situations almost every minute), and a quite impressive film even though, having read the books, I’m not sure how much sense it would make to someone coming to the story de novo without having read at least The Hunger Games itself.

I was dubious about some of the casting — frankly I would have liked it better (and believed it more) if Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson had switched roles — and a few of the plot twists: in the book the “mutts,” genetically engineered feral dogs patterned after previously killed tributes who menace the survivors in the final sequence, are a total surprise to the tributes and the readers alike, while the film shows them being created by the gamemaker and therefore takes the edge off their appearance in the arena — and there are other things I could pick to pieces (like the appearance of the Cornucopia, from which the tributes are allowed to pick up supplies at the beginning but which invariably turns into a bloodbath because it also gives them an opportunity to knock each other off — I had imagined it being a giant version of a real cornucopia and instead it’s an abstract creation the set designer deliberately modeled on Frank Gehry’s ugly “modern” buildings), but overall the film is quite close to the book, makes most of Collins’ points and even adds some: in the movie, much more than the book, it’s clear that the spectacle is being deliberately manipulated by the gamemaker and his staff to provide the jaded Capital residents with their sick idea of “entertainment,” and on film the Hunger Games themselves look even more like the ultimate extension of the TV “reality show” than they seemed in the book (where the Capital’s residents were the only people in Panem who actually could watch TV regularly; the people in the Districts were rounded up and put in front of group televisions to make them watch the Hunger Games, much the way I saw being done in Cuba whenever Fidel Castro made a speech: ordinary Cuban TV in 1977, when I was there, was black-and-white from old Russian set designs, but when Castro spoke color sets were brought out and the people were gathered around them).

The Hunger Games is one of the most important stories created by anybody in the last few years — Suzanne Collins probably said more, said it more succinctly and reached far more people, than all the Occupy orators and theorists talking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent — and for the most part this film does justice to its chilling first episode. How the moviemakers (including a different director) handle the more morally ambiguous second and third books remains to be seen, but they’ve made a good start; one could readily imagine a Marxist professor (assuming there are any left!) assigning Collins’ books as an illustration of much of what Marx was talking about in his theories of exploitation, surplus value and labor — not capital — being the source of all wealth.