That The Hunger Games is so timely and intelligent is precisely the reason why it’s also so frightening. It depicts a time and place in which the failures of mass society are exploited for the entertainment of the privileged few. In this case, it’s in the form of an annual competition to the death, one that’s captured via hidden cameras and aired for the rest of the world to see. Whatever they call it in this alternate reality, it would be called reality TV in ours. Thank God, we have not devolved to the point of watching people kill each other. We have, however, sunk to some pretty low depths. We celebrate people like Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay, who achieve notoriety by being bullies. We watch as groups of men or women vie for a marriage proposal from a woman or man they know nothing about. We witness Kim Kardashian earn millions for doing nothing, apart from looking beautiful.
Adapted from the novel by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is set in an unspecified future time, at which point a new nation has developed from the wreckage of North America. This nation is presided over by the Capitol, where the rich and powerful flaunt themselves with highly advanced technologies and outlandish fashion choices. The rest of the nation is divided into twelve districts, where the people live in squalor and are essentially slave labor for their respective natural resources. An unsuccessful uprising seventy years ago resulted in the destruction of a thirteenth district. As punishment, one boy and girl from each district, both between the ages of twelve and eighteen, is chosen by raffle each year to participate in the Hunger Games, a competition in which the contestants fight each other in a forested arena. The winner is the one still alive at the end.
In District 12, we meet sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a skilled archer and hunter who has cared for her little sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), and her mother (Paula Malcomson) since the death of their father some years earlier. When representatives of the Capitol come to town, Primrose is selected as the female contestant – or tribute, as they’re known in this alternate reality. Katniss, desperate to save her sister, volunteers to take her place. The male tribute is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who harbors a crush on Katniss and once showed her an act of kindness. They’re both escorted to the Capitol by the preening, clown-faced Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), where, before the games begin, they’re shown luxury the likes of which they’ve never seen.
Along with a good deal of physical training, Katniss and Peeta are given a personal stylist named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and an advisor named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a disheartened drunk. They make it clear that survival depends in large part on personality; the more hearts they win over, the more likely they are to receive food and aid from sponsors. They also stress that all the people want is a good show. Indeed, all tributes are paraded in the town square to cheering throngs of thousands. They’re even greeted by the President (Donald Sutherland), who secretly knows that the real reason the Hunger Games exist at all is the give District viewers the illusion of hope. All tributes are dolled up and flaunted on a flashy reality show hosted by the flamboyant Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), whose white teeth gleam along with his sequined jacket.
Once the tributes are physically lifted into the arena, the story abandons hype and celebrity in favor of a brutal, desperate battle for survival, one that’s highly disturbing but no less compelling. Although director Gary Ross doesn’t shy away from depicting the deaths of young people, he refrains from being gratuitous, and for that, he deserves a great deal of credit. This is not about tasteless gore effects and the exploitation of faceless teens; we’re actually made to care about these characters so that, when they die, it elicits a genuine emotional reaction. It’s not easy to watch, but then again, it isn’t supposed to be. Imagine what it must be like for the District populations. They’re forced to watch as someone’s son, daughter, brother, or sister is murdered as a form of mass entertainment.
Katniss and Peeta are enamoring characters, mostly because they learn to survive without sacrificing their humanity. With Katniss, we see this through her bond another tribute, a twelve-year-old girl named Rue (Amandla Stenberg). With Peeta, we see this through his growing affection for Katniss. It’s precisely because of them that the people behind the scenes devise a number of rating-boosting strategies, including a last-minute rule change I will not give away. I suppose one could consider The Hunger Games an enjoyable movie, although I believe it’s intended to be something more than that. It tells a story that’s so deeply troubling and yet so remarkably insightful. It makes some valid points, not just on the state of what passes for entertainment nowadays, but also on society, politics, and the capacity for hope in dark times.