Director/Coscreenwriter: Gary Ross
By Roderick Heath
Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful novel The Hunger Games and its follow-ups about Katniss Everdeen, teenage huntress at war with a futuristic dystopia, were obviously written with the hope they would become major motion pictures. With their driving plots, experiential style, and unremitting forward-march pacing, the series cunningly condensed a host of popular hooks and iconographic-ready ideas, and crafts them into an attractive package for our era. Chief amongst these is Katniss, the tough, skilful, emotionally discursive heroine, of a breed far more common today than they used to be but still sufficiently unique to earn plentiful encomiums in critical commentary. She is coupled with a plot that, like similar recent cult hits, including the Japanese novel Battle Royale and its 2000 film version by Kinji Fukasaku, the Australian novel and film Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010), and even the Triwizard Tournament of the Harry Potter tales, evokes the darker sides of modern teenage existence. The joyless competitiveness forced on it by adult social expectations and the cruelty asserted within itself, as well its very familiar fantasies and hopes, are placed in heightened situations that sharpen the metaphors to melodramatic points.
If I’m sounding a little jaded about Collins’ creation, which I enjoyed reading, it’s because the more I thought about The Hunger Games, the less and less satisfied I was. It’s a novel that carefully sets up a situation that is, by definition, a zone of moral nullification, and yet contrives to have our heroine emerge smelling like a rose without ever having to make a genuinely hard choice, in a tale that counts finally as neither effectively elemental nor symbolically rich, but rather as efficiently marketable: In fairness, the second two novels do amass genuine complexity, and admittedly, there’s only so far one can go in engaging with moral ambiguity and depth in a book aimed squarely for a young adult readership. But Katniss remains such a clean-cut moral avatar for her audience, in high contrast to a hellish scenario, that its starts to feel somehow dishonest. There are many things that seem right about Gary Ross’s film adaptation, especially most of the cast. Jennifer Lawrence, so strong in Winter’s Bone (2010) and so dispensable in X-Men: First Class (2011), returns to form as Katniss, the prematurely hardened lass who’s become an excellent archer thanks to years of having to provide for her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) and shell-shocked mother (Paula Malcomson) following her father’s death in a mine explosion. Katniss is a citizen of the poor, retrograde District 12, a mining commune that forms one of the dozen oppressed fiefdoms of Panem, a future state that has risen from the ashes of a North America wrecked by various, fleetingly described calamities. Katniss enjoys hunting in the woods outside the boundaries of the district with her hunky guy-pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but fate, and the peculiarly vicious futuristic version of the social contract, has nasty things in store for Katniss.
Since a rebellion many years before against Panem’s ruling elite in the Capitol, a sacrificial tournament is held every year in which a boy and girl tribute from each district has to engage in a gladiatorial fight to the death in a carefully prepared natural environment. At “The Reaping,” the lots are drawn for the District 12’s anointed duo; in spite of the stacked decks of economic necessity that mean Katniss and Gale are far more likely to have their names drawn, it’s Prim who is chosen. Katniss frantically volunteers to take her place, and she and male pick Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of local bakers who once did Katniss a good turn, are initiated, albeit briefly, into the decadent lifestyle of the Capitol, where they’re manufactured into fitting media idols for the duration of the Games. You see, it’s not simply one’s survival skills that can affect the outcome, but one’s direct appeal to an audience of potential sponsors who can pay to have desperately needed items dropped into the battle zone. Katniss and Peeta are prepared, in varying styles, for their oncoming ordeal by their appointed mentor, District 12’s only living Games winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and the surprisingly empathetic Capitolian stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).
Ross was clearly chosen for this project on the back of his previous works as director, the obvious fantasy satire Pleasantville (1998), where the destruction of oppressive regimes is relayed through media images, and Seabiscuit (2003), where scrappy underdogs triumph in a time of privation. Ross’s direction, as with those previous films, is often facetious in its cinematic techniques, if also well-calibrated in places. Such is true of an hallucinatory sequence where, affected by the sting of genetically engineered wasps, Katniss dreams of her father’s death, and a patch of raw impressionism in the first moments of the games: the well-trained Tributes from richer districts for whom competition is an honour brutally exterminate as many competitors as possible, scored to an eerie piece of ’70s experimental music. Both of these scenes hit the right note of apocalyptic dread.
But elsewhere, Ross reveals an inability to create a truly textured mise-en-scène or sustain real tension, badly corroding the story’s basic strengths. What’s supposed to be the acerbic portrait of the Capitolians as a race who have taken plastic surgery and body modification to infinitely more ludicrous levels is poorly rendered: Ross’s Capitolians look more like art students attending a New Wave dance club circa 1982. Where a cleverer director with a stronger sense of staging might have presented a jarring intrusion of super-technology into what is otherwise a 1920s mining town, Ross casually tosses it at the screen, much like he does with the disorienting contrast of the ludicrously dolled-up Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the drab environs and populace of District 12. It’s a warning that the kind of superficial realism Ross tries to invoke with his jittery hand-held camerawork doesn’t always suit tales where the need to absorb surface contrasts is part of the dramatic texture, never mind futuristic fantasy-action-satires. By contrast with the environs of District 12, smartly utilising the real detritus of modern industrialism, the Capitol is a hunk of unspecific CGI, and flatly derived contemporary televisions graphics are proffered to fill out this curious future brand of reality TV. Characterisation of the archly artificial Capitolians that ought to blend with supple anxiety and personal insufficiencies, like Effie and Stanley Tucci’s smarmy TV host, are steamrollered into mere theory.
Ross is a “serious” filmmaker, and he puts his broadly successful main effort into taking Katniss’ terror and bravery earnestly, but the film deals with her background and history in District 12 is such cursory terms that Katniss is reduced to little more than a pretty, bland protagonist. Her nominal toughness and strength of character are barely troubled by any depth, only a kind of blank stoicism, and her love for her sister is signalled with tepid devices. Ross leans entirely on Lawrence to flesh out Katniss, a reasonably smart move as Lawrence delivers, but not therefore a forgivable one. Her attitude is conveniently laid out for us when she retorts to Peeta’s stated desire that he find a way to remain an autonomous moral unit in the Games, “I can’t afford to think like that.” Of course, the film will constantly undercut Katniss’ expedient sensibility first by making sure that the only deaths she has a hand in are mercy killings or entirely deserved in the name of self-defence against creeps. The set-piece of grim, wrenching loss in both book and film is the death of Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the youngest of the Tributes who reminds Katniss of her sister and who is impaled with a spear by another tribute trying to kill Katniss. The film’s most interesting addition follows: because Ross can’t quite get across how Katniss deliberately turns her funeral for Rue into an act of political theatre because he cannot offer any technique that gets into her headspace, he provides instead a literal result, a riot in Rue’s home district sparked by fury over the girl’s death and Katniss’ gesture of solidarity.
Collins’ novel, whilst many miles from being a literary masterpiece, utilises its first-person, present-tense style cleverly to lay out a tale that engages with a modern phenomenon, the layering of media that’s pervasive in a world where it’s possible to experience, record, and critique experience all at once, and where internal and exterior realities can be disconnected in some puzzling and alienating ways. This is accomplished through Katniss’ constant meditations on the opacity of Peeta’s motives as well as her own, and the necessity of playing up to the crowd before, during, and after the Games. The idea is deepened in the follow-up novels, in which Katniss is constructed in variations of media idol as required by the moment and the authorities laying claim to her. This is the new element Collins brought to the basic story, which has roots in prehistory but which comes to us most clearly from models like Richard Connell’s oft-filmed story The Most Dangerous Game and Cornel Wilde’s rough-hewn classic The Naked Prey (1966): the basic point of such tales is that if you strip down the average human and place them in a situation of animalistic, life-and-death struggle, you find something both frightening and pure, even noble.
More recent works with similar motifs, like Rollerball (1975) and The Running Man (1986), added the idea of such battles being media events, taking place under an incessant, totalitarian scrutiny. Collins’ tale, through the way the Games are constructed as instant media artefacts, moves beyond such templates, as even in situations of ruthless combat and mortal struggle, there’s an element of psychological duplicity, of unreality: even a battle to the death can still be punctuated by worrying about achieving the right pose and losing your audience appeal. When I, like many others, first heard of the Collins tales, the likeness to Battle Royale seemed inescapable, but upon actually reading The Hunger Games, I immediately realised there’s little actual similarity—ironically, to The Hunger Games’ detriment. Battle Royale presented a ruthlessly cunning metaphor for the pressure placed upon students to conform and perform, and dug with insidious brilliance into the dark side of being adolescent—the operatic emotional intensity, the protean fluctuations between pure ardour and utter hate, the way petty social interactions and competitions can stir outsized reactions.
The Hunger Games, by contrast, essentially treats its central conceit like an interschool sporting event, tossing people who don’t know each other into a cauldron. The film barely introduces the other Tributes, most of whom are just glowering, smug hunks of threat. That was egregious in the book, too, but at least the first-person perspective made it acceptable. Ross violates that perspective at any opportunity, chiefly so he can use the Games commentators as exposition spouters. The sight of the most skilled and ruthless Tributes, who form a unit to pick off Katniss, calls to mind a pack of prefects hounding the solitary misfit on a school excursion and has some punch in evoking true high school dynamics, but this is throwaway. Whatever relevance The Hunger Games has to its target audience is all but surgically removed beyond obvious placards like “rely on yourself” whilst “sometimes working together is good.”
Also banished is any real political significance, as Panem is left such a vague and specious dystopia as to make the film’s pretences to commentary on haves and have-nots (or the 1% and 99% to put it in laboured contemporary slogans) thin to the point of meaninglessness, especially considering that the film cops out of implicating its audience in the acts of watching thrilling blood sports for entertainment. In the novel, the social structure of Panem is left fairly vague, and therefore the situation of Katniss and fellow Tributes has a faintly Kafkaesque quality of random victimisation by unseen forces; here the villainy is given specific shape by fleshing out the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the chief of the “Gamemakers,” Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). Sutherland, who’s as sublimely menacing in his leonine fashion as he’s ever been, aptly links the film to a cinematic history of anti-establishment films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and MASH (1970), which is odd, because otherwise, The Hunger Games represents the franchise film without specific history or future, only the necessity of the moment’s dollar.
Collins’ novel offered a fascinating take of the ambiguity of some youthful rites of passage: Katniss’ engaging in a play-act with Peeta that may or may not be a play-act, for the benefit of success in the Games and also because Katniss is still essentially learning who she is. By going through the motions of certain experiences, she channels a common way young people engage in self-discovery, more common than is often noted. This theme is completely lost on screen. The film even sucks away some of the book’s wryer touches that offer thematic heft, like the way Katniss begins to feel the pull of the hated exceptionalism and decadence of the Capitol’s lifestyle as she’s waylaid by plentiful food and the beautifying treatments and styling Cinna gives her. Cinna’s own most memorable line of self-assessment that offers the hint that not all is well amongst the Capitol’s citizenry, “How despicable we must seem to you,” fails to make the cut, too. It’s no wonder pundits of both left and right have been able to lay claim to the film, because it’s so equivocal as to be practically a Rorschach test for the viewer’s specific viewpoint. The Hunger Games has and undoubtedly will continue to inspire a suitable welter of articles in magazines and term papers about empowerment for young women, metaphors for the global financial crisis and third-world poverty, reflections on social networking and reality television, and blah blah fricking blah. This is the perfect material for our era where subtext has become, well, text, the theoretical turned into pedagogic narrative literalism without real entertainment value.
Ross and Billy Ray cowrote the script with Collins herself, and the film follows the novel with a painstaking refusal of new imagination, and yet it still manages to leave out much that made Collins’ work specific and original, and rushes not only the scene-setting opening but also the interestingly off-beat, melancholy conclusion. After decades of complaints about filmmakers ruining novels by changing them, today filmmakers ruin novels by adapting them with scrupulously lead-footed fidelity, as if there’s no essential difference between literary and cinematic narrative techniques. Rather than intelligent synergy, what we get is rote extrapolation of the good bits (Katniss shooting the apple from the roast pig’s mouth to shock the Gamemakers; dropping the hive of mutant wasps to see off her persecutors) without any care for narrative sophistication or novelty, leaving only a glorified TV pilot. There’s so little nimbleness, wit, concision, and visual pleasure in this film that it begins to feel like a chore to get to the end of it. There’s something about these carefully packaged franchises based on hit novels that’s becoming increasingly stultifying, being as they are essentially two hours of moving fan service rather than independent-minded cinema. Whereas that was acceptable with the Harry Potter novels, which, with their intricate plots and their overflowing delight in a fantasy world, both enabling and offering relief from mere plot, a neat correlation is now established: Hollywood gets to milk every last dime in exchange for fans, that ever-nebulous body that is today regarded as a body of sacred worshippers, especially if they’re young.
Perhaps all this wouldn’t mean too much if The Hunger Games, which is basically an action-adventure tale in spite of its pretensions, was actually any good as an action-adventure movie, but it’s simply passable in that regard. Whilst the moment of Rue’s death is leveraged for maximum impact, it’s so carefully arranged to leave Katniss free of any implicit guilt and absent any sense of physical pain that the effect is calculated and mawkish, as if the filmmakers have no sense of the irony implicit in the scene. The film’s best moment of violent epiphany comes when Katniss is defeated by one of her more evil opponents, a knife-hurling girl named Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), who, taunting Katniss about the death of Rue, earns the wrath of Rue’s district fellow Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi). He beats her to death, her wide-eyed corpse falling to the earth besides Katniss in the sort of moment that carries the authentic jolt of supercharged emotion blending with the sudden switch between villain and victim such a situation must entail. But the moment doesn’t count for much—a flaw shared with the book—because the other Tributes are all functional cyphers who give shows of wickedness, emotion, and mercy precisely when it’s required for our heroine’s sake, whose nominal qualities are, again, constantly undercut by external chance and happenstance when it comes to staying alive. Even the moment when Katniss decides to defy the Gamemakers in their final cheat, and proposes that she and Peeta poison themselves, is clearly signalled to be her cunning plan, assured to end positively. Lawrence shares barely any chemistry with her unremarkable young costars, so any proto-erotic frisson is irrelevant. I began to find myself, heaven forbid, actually missing that gauche, girly, campy enthusiasm that drives the Twilight tales, where at least there’s supposed to be some pleasure in the fantasy.
The novel’s bizarre climax, when the remnant Tributes are hunted by dogs genetically engineered with DNA from their dead fellows, a concept and image with truly Sadean ramifications, is rendered dead on arrival because Ross shoots it in the dark. Which made me newly conscious about one aspect of this type of movie: whilst The Hunger Games goes through the paces of making itself coherent to an audience of newbies, for people who know the book, it essentially relies on them to fill in all the blanks it leaves. Of course, none of this is to say that The Hunger Games is bad: and no, it’s not bad. But it still manages to amplify the faults of its source material and add more of its own. In the end, it is competent and sufficient, and, all things considered, that’s what’s truly, dismayingly disappointing about it. Still, it’s not just Lawrence who emerges with dignity intact: Kravitz is surprisingly good as the commanding, yet gentle Cinna, and Stenberg is unforced in her embodiment of plucky, doomed youth. On the other hand, Harrelson and Banks, often amongst the better things in movies they appear on, get barely any chance to suggest pathos for their characters. Perhaps this series will improve in its later chapters, especially the dark, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” kicker in the last episode, but only if it learns the same lesson as Katniss does. It’s not enough to merely turn up and act tough. You need a good stylist, too.