Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bleed the Poor

I enjoyed The Hunger Games more than I expected. America's last big movie sensation, Avatar, was pretty, but also pretty dull, being as it was so many white savior and environmental and sci-fi themes warmed-over. Hunger Games promises more with its title alone, an ear-catching juxtaposition of poverty and play. In practice, the movie (I haven't read the book series on which it's based, but given there are three of them I would suspect the film's biggest flaw originates therein) does a great many good and interesting things, but does not have the courage of its conception, and ends up shying away from the logical conclusions of its grim setup.

That setup is a very good one. At an unspecified time in the future, there is a nation, Panem, divided into thirteen districts. The thirteen revolted against the Capitol, which crushed the rebellion, destroying District 13 (this detail passed me by in the theater) and re-asserted its authority by decreeing that every year the remaining districts would select by lottery two children, a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen referred to as Tributes, to go to the Capitol and battle to the death in what are known as The Hunger Games, until there is only one left standing.

The Hunger Games, the movie, takes place on the eve of the 74th such competition. District 12, a coal-mining region, selects as its Tributes Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) and baker's son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Prim is but a girl of twelve and for her sake her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who has provided for her family by illegal trapping and hunting game beyond the District boundaries, volunteers to take her place. Katniss and Peeta are taken by a very silly escort from the Capitol (Elizabeth Banks) onto a train, where they meet their mentor, a previous Hunger Games winner and now seemingly hopeless drunk, Haymitch Abertnathy (Woody Harrelson), and head to the Capitol to prepare for the Games. Katniss and Peeta have something of a history, which will play a decisive role in how the Games eventually unfold.

While the geography of the world the movie builds occasionally feels small or ill-defined (the movie doesn't make clear that this is a far in the future America, which makes it seem all the more remarkable that of twelve presumably huge districts the two Tributes should know each other so well already), its character is quite fully realized. Far be it for me to say how The Hunger Games managed to conquer our consciousness in less than three months, but I would posit the fact that it crystallizes so much of the national mood--on reckless endangerment and death in sports and reality television; on the regression of values by endless war; even, and especially, the awareness of teen bullying--and pushes it to, in Peter Brook's phrasing, arresting extremes.

The teenager angle is especially stark, taking high school life, which feels like a life-and-death, end of the world struggle, and making it so. At one point in the Tribunes' training Katness tells Peter to demonstrate his strength, because his clumsiness is making him a target in the others' eyes. This scenario is already familiar to an audience--it may as well be happening in gym class--but here it acquires a vicious edge: they're playing for keeps, as the kids say. Accordingly the opening of the Games, in which nearly half the contenders get slaughtered making a mad dash for a cornucopia of weaponry, plays like the most lethal game of dodgeball ever conceived. The violence is not as brutal as a story like this should be, but it does about everything it can within the confines of commercial necessity. With an assortment of deaths by bludgeons, wasp stings, neck-snappings, and impalements, it's definitely on the outer limits of a hard PG-13 rating, which had already been pushed pretty far by The Dark Knight.

Ultimately, however, the movie shrinks from the horrific implications of its concept. The Tributes, the handful of the 24 that do receive some characterization, are largely written as 'good' or 'evil' types, such that it when one of them dies, it's clear whether we should be happy or sad. These scenes are generally fine in themselves--the way one death triggers a District riot is in fact one of the best moments in the movie--but there's no ambiguity. Inherent in the concept of kids fighting to the death is the possibility that Katniss and Peeta will have to kill someone they don't want to die, including the other. I can't articulate what's wrong with the second half of the movie without going into major detail, so for those who wish to remain blissfully ignorant, suffice it to say that this crushing moral dilemma is deliberately neutered.


Midway through the Games the rules are very explicitly changed so that two victors can be allowed if they're from the same district. The gamemaster who makes this change does so to keep Katniss and Peeta from being killed on orders from the President, and to encourage a 'Romeo and Juliet' angle that will play well with audiences. This completely eliminates the Hunger Games' basic tension, the zero-sum scenario that could force good people to kill each other to survive, and reduces the conflict even more to good kids vs. bad kids.

The rules are borked with even further, however, so that the final showdown with Cato, the District 2 Aryan psychopath antagonist, has to be literally conjured out of thin air, with a pack of hyena-like beasts forcing them all into one confined area. Then the two victors rule is rescinded, forcing the zero-sum conflict back into the story where it should have stayed from the beginning. And then, just when it seems like the movie might actually pull off a great ending in spite of all this narrative chicanery--that Katniss and Peeta will, in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, commit suicide rather than abide by the pitiless one-victor rule, and so defy the false notion of hope the Games are built on--the rules change once more so they can both live and the audience can have a happy ending.

Making an actual character, the Gamemaster, responsible for changing the rules is a clever attempt to shift the blame for narrative inconsistency away from the story's author and screenwriter, Suzanne Collins, but it's still a cop-out. Yet as meta-textual commentary it's a smashing success. The Panem audience loves Katniss and Peeta, and The Hunger Games opens with juggernaut $211 million blitz.

I'm making this sound worse than it is. Director Gary Ross's decision to film all this with a nervous, handheld shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing is a terrible decision that sometimes results in near total geographic incoherence, but the first two-thirds of the movie manages to be very good anyway, thanks to a strong cast (Lawrence is the obvious standout, playing a girl caught between mature resolve and youthful vulnerability, but the supporting cast, including Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland as the President, are vital to realizing the world of the story), and some solid visuals, balanced between the squalid Districts and the shiny, shallow, Capitol.

In the end, the movie's done its job. In spite of the cheap ending I'm invested enough in the characters to find out what happens, and may well check out the books, which I'm told describe the world in considerably greater detail. The movie's second half, though, hurts badly, in all the wrong ways. It betrays the promise of the premise, making what could be a truly great story merely good for the sake of a follow-up. Perhaps the the sequels justify it, but for now, I'm still hungry.

1 comment:

  1. My favorite part is when you imply that the Capitol was played by Elizabeth Banks. :)

    OK, fine, I'll finish reading now...