A Cunning Confection, and Some Food for Thought: A Review of The Hunger Games

by Gary Westfahl

So, does anybody really care what a man who will soon be a grandfather thinks about The Hunger Games? Certainly, in the language of the trade, I am not part of the film’s target demographic, and having avoided all contact with the books and films of the Twilight franchise, I can offer no insights regarding how Suzanne Collins’s creation compares to its most obvious predecessor. In addition, an evaluation of this film requires no expertise in science fiction, since Collins has no background in the genre and manifestly drew upon none of its traditions; one cannot sanely argue that the story represents Collins’s thoughtful extrapolation of a likely future for American society, or an effort to provide an Awful Warning that we should never allow a dictatorial government to impose duels to the death on its youngest citizens. But it would be pointless to complain, for example, that economic disparities cannot fully account for the film’s bizarre mixtures of primitive and futuristic technologies, since Collins was doubtless unaware of any expectations that imagined future worlds should display such an overall logic.

Indeed, the only way one can bring science fiction into any discussion of this film is to fall back on one of the hoariest clichés applied to the genre, namely, that all science fiction is really about the present; for at least when science fiction is created by persons unschooled in its history, that is invariably the case. One must further consider Collins’s actual background as a longtime writer for the Nickelodeon cable network, which grew and thrived by inculcating a canny awareness of what young viewers wanted to watch and relentlessly providing appropriate products. Her experience explains one thing that divides her novel from seemingly related precursors in science fiction; for in other stories envisioning future societies with televised gladiatorial combat, like Robert Sheckley’s “Seventh Victim” (1953), filmed as The 10th Victim (1965), or Stephen King’s The Running Man (1982), filmed in 1987, the authors were criticizing the violence and exploitation of contemporary television by offering exaggerated portrayals of its worst excesses. Yet one struggles to discern such a theme in Collins’s novel or the screenplay she co-authored with director Gary Ross and Billy Ray; for this veteran of children’s television, it seems, there is nothing wrong with the concept of televised death matches, only the injustice (to be discussed) of this particular variation on the theme. (Indeed, though there is no evidence that she worked for the series, Collins’s Hunger Games bear a certain resemblance to the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple [1993-1995], wherein teams of one boy and one girl compete for prizes while being guided by a helpful host.)

More significantly, knowing where Collins is coming from, one cannot characterize the success of The Hunger Games as the heartwarming story of a plucky outsider like J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer who serendipitously hit upon a concept that excited and enthralled young readers; rather, it is the calculated product of a savvy professional carefully striving to construct precisely the sort of adventure that she knew would appeal to young Americans today. And recognizing that she crafted a dystopian novel about a society that gleefully torments its teenagers, now faithfully adapted for the screen and eagerly awaited by hordes of young fans, might make The Hunger Games a sobering experience for persons outside its target demographic.

Like the Nickelodeon programs that I watched with my children in the 1990s, in other words, this film is providing an evocative look at contemporary America from the perspective of young people today. In the early twenty-first century, they now see their environment, first of all, as a world of poverty; opening images of a lonely old man, a woman hanging laundry in the backyard, and an old woman selling trinkets in a dark, crowded building deliberately recall America’s Great Depression of the 1930s, an era that is increasingly influencing the look of modern films. (One recalls, for example, the similar ambience of In Time [2011] [review here ], or for that matter, of the realistic rural drama Winter’s Bone [2010], wherein this film’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, essentially played another version of Collins’s Katniss Everdeen, an impoverished but determined young woman fighting for her family’s survival.) And regardless of how economists define such phenomena, any young person who remembers the prosperous 1990s, observing conditions today, might logically feel that they are living through a depression of their own, with no relief in sight.

They would further perceive that, as in this film, they are living in a world of injustice, wherein a few people enjoy carefree lives of luxury while others barely have enough to eat. But the peculiar genius of The Hunger Games, unlike In Time, is that its unjust society is starkly divided along generational lines: though there are a few small children in sight, the citizens of the oppressive Capitol are overwhelmingly adults, and their absurdly colorful outfits and extravagant hairstyles can readily be interpreted as the way that teenagers today view the older adults around them – frivolous, arbitrary, and distinctly unfashionable, living comfortable lives supported by programs like Social Security and Medicare largely funded by the hard labor of young workers. In contrast, it is teenagers and their parents, lacking access to such governmental largess, who must suffer in rags through penurious circumstances.

Finally, young people today are figuring out that this cruel, capricious older generation is preparing them for a real-life version of the Hunger Games – constantly pushing them to do well in high school, get into the right college, and obtain all the proper training and credentials, then thrusting them into a society where, despite all their efforts, they will face daunting competition to find a good job and, unlikely to succeed, will somehow have to eke out a living while burdened by massive debts. Indeed, to students hoping to get into elite colleges with ten times more applicants than slots available, or seeking a job that has attracted hundreds of applicants, winning a competition with only twenty-four contestants might seem less challenging than the figurative struggles for survival that they will actually be facing.

If one sees this film as a relentlessly bleak portrait of the situation facing today’s youth, that may largely be due to the singular performance of Jennifer Lawrence, an actress who seems to specialize in monotonous sullenness; for everything about her interpretation of the character radiates the attitude that life is nothing but one rotten chore after another, to be endured solely because the alternatives are even worse. Seeking to define precisely what might be different about contemporary fantasy films, I briefly imagined a new remake of a classic film that has certain structural similarities to The Hunger Games, The Wizard of Oz (1939), since it also involves a poor girl living in a dismal house who is transported to a bright, colorful realm where she is obliged to commit murder. But picture Lawrence starring as a dour Dorothy who is totally annoyed about having to be in the marvelous land of Oz when she has chores to do in Kansas, a Dorothy who resolves to follow the stupid Yellow Brick Road, and kill the stupid Wicked Witch of the West, solely because these irritating adults keep telling her she has to do it, never once cracking a smile as she grimly takes care of business. It doesn’t sound very appealing to me; but if teenagers today can warm to this sort of character in this sort of film, that suggests to me that their young lives have been far more miserable and depressing than my own youth, and that is a saddening thought.

If there is some silver lining to this dark cloud, it is that the valorization of a character like Katniss might suggest a determination among young viewers to refashion themselves along those lines, to become so amazingly tough and resourceful that all obstacles can ultimately be overcome. Today’s hard times, then, may be inadvertently breeding another Greatest Generation that, in the manner of the children of the Great Depression, will similarly lead a reinvigorated America to reconquer the world, albeit without the smiles stubbornly displayed by their predecessors. But considered in isolation, The Hunger Games suggests that today’s youth may entertain more modest aspirations: Katniss may win the game, and may even earn a few symbolic victories against the system, but nothing she accomplishes in the novel or film changes the fact that, next year, twenty-four more of her compatriots will have to endure the same mistreatment. Only a few extraordinary individuals, then, may succeed in a world that remains dominated by those who lose the game. To be sure, when Collins continued the story in Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010), she did involve Katniss and others in an ultimately successful rebellion against the evil government, for there was no other direction for the saga to take, and the Hollywood mentality she embodies drives every story to a happy ending. But in doing so, she may have weakened her epic’s appeal; for I personally suspect that our increasingly cynical young people might prefer the very conditional nature of her victory here, and that the projected film trilogy to be based on the sequels may ultimately prove less popular than the almost inevitable success of this film would indicate.

Watching this film, then, a college professor might glumly conclude that the bubble-headed, inanely cheerful commentators on the Hunger Games – Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones) – represent the way that he is viewed by his students, as a privileged person insulated from the world’s harsh realities, and a senseless brawl with deadly weapons represents their vision of the unfair battle that he and others are forcing them into. However, the young enthusiasts who constitute this film’s target demographic simply wish to be entertained by The Hunger Games, to get away from their problems for a few hours; they do not want to be told by some old curmudgeon that they are enjoying the film precisely because it is surreptitiously reminding them of their problems. And like the book it is based on, this film does constitute a superb piece of entertainment, with attractive young performers enacting a fast-paced adventure. In their own discussions about the film, then, young filmgoers will probably not be trying to ferret out dark messages about modern life, but will rather be focusing on the various ways that the film diverges from the book, which are generally minor but sometimes telling.

Since she had written many scripts for television, it is not surprising that Collins was invited to write the screenplay for The Hunger Games, and since hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake, it is also not surprising that both director Ross and another writer were asked to contribute as well, in order to ensure that the film touched every possible base in its efforts to boost ticket sales. Some changes were eminently practical: throughout the novel, the sole viewpoint character is protagonist Katniss Everdeen, so once the games begin, she must successfully guess what her mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the others manipulating the game are up to; however, since films can only relate what characters are thinking by means of awkward voiceover narration, the film includes some scenes of the spectators, and little notes from Haymitch, to communicate to her and the audience exactly what they are doing. This does have the effect, though, of making the film’s Katniss seem a little less intelligent than the novel’s Katniss. Also, since you can never have too much conflict in any green-lighted script, the film introduces some tension between the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the slightly less evil Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), as well as suggestions that they are deliberately trying to ensure Katniss’s demise.

With no time for every subplot from the novel, the film does not mention that the Capitol’s Avox servants, all dressed in red, are rebels who had their tongues removed, and leaves out scenes when Katniss briefly interacts with one former rebel she had observed in the forest, although this information does serve to make this government seem even more oppressive. Another omitted nuance was the fact that the murderous “muttations” unleashed upon the remaining survivors had the eyes of the dead contestants, a detail virtually impossible to convey in a crisp or visual manner. While the film reproduces all of the novel’s grisly violence, the extended sequence in which Katniss almost dies of thirst while searching for water was evidently deemed insufficiently dramatic for the screen, so its Katniss almost immediately finds water and never seems thirsty, and someone must have deemed it too depressing to have one character lose a leg. Finally, as a question of pacing, the film seems to spend a little too much time on the events leading up to the games, while rushing a bit through the games themselves. Viewers who haven’t read the novel, for example, might not fully understand how Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) accidentally causes one entrant’s death, and while the film shows Katniss carefully placing flowers on the body of another victim, the significance of her action, a gesture of rebellion, is never conveyed. (Perhaps, just this once, some voiceover narration would have been appropriate.)

Other changes may have been dictated by casting decisions. Building up Snow as a character was a logical way to lay the groundwork for the film’s projected sequels, in which Snow will figure as a major villain, but I’m sure it made Donald Sutherland happy as well. Similarly, Woody Harrelson might have had something to do with the fact that his Haymitch, after an introductory scene displaying his dissolute drunkenness, seems far more competent and compassionate than the character in the novel. In contrast, one minor coup in Collins’s novel was the way in which the prattling Effie Trinket fleetingly comes to life as a real person, conveying that in her own way she is also a victim of the system, while the film’s Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) never rises above the status of a clumsy caricature. Presumably, Banks simply didn’t have the clout that Sutherland and Harrelson could command. For similar reasons, one of the District 12 stylists, Portia (played by the unknown Latarsha Rose), is almost invisible in the film, while the other, Cinna, retains the major role he plays in the novel because he is portrayed, and portrayed very well, by rock musician Lenny Kravitz.

All things considered, however, these departures from the novel are inconsequential, matters that only dedicated fans would quibble about; given the book’s remarkable popularity, it would have been foolish to make any major changes, and with a seasoned expert like Collins involved in the process, even the fools who often ruin Hollywood adaptations were surely disinclined to “improve” her work in any significant fashion. In sum, for the young filmgoers that it is targeting, The Hunger Games constitutes a lively, involving adaptation of a lively, involving novel, and only the older viewers who find themselves in the theatre may be struck by its daunting message about the lowered expectations and shattered dreams of its fervent fans.

Gary Westfahl’s works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009), its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009), the co-edited anthology Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future (2011), and the forthcoming The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012).

6 thoughts on “A Cunning Confection, and Some Food for Thought: A Review of The Hunger Games

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *