This review contains some spoilers for folks who haven’t read the books.
Like many of our most popular cultural artifacts, The Hunger Game is a Leatherman of a series, a multi-purpose tool for discussing everything from war and insurgency (as always, read Amy Davidson) to an increasingly brutal college admissions process. But on the occasion of the movie adaptation’s arrival in theaters, it’s worth returning to the franchise’s title: this is a story about a country in which the unimaginably rich manipulate the desperately poor with incredible cruelty, and where a fossilized class system treats people who want to survive it, much less rise from one class into the next, with violence and sadism. The Hunger Games begins in a world where roses are imaginable, and bread is a commodity so valuable that its arrival is a symbol from the heavens and it can create emotional ties that last a lifetime. The Hunger Games is also about war, and democracy, and torture, and personal autonomy, but all of those consequences and conversations are offshoots of a basic setup: a world where a few people have anything and many people have almost nothing.
A movie about savage inequalities is almost absurdly timely, even if we don’t live in a world where the citizens of subject states each much send two children between 12 and 18 to fight to the death in a televised competition for the amusement of the vastly wealthy, and the temporary economic elevation of a lucky survivor and his or her family. And The Hunger Games is at its best when it puts the rich and their victims in contact, though it falters when it comes to portraying the competition between those who are desperately hoping to rise.
Some of the most biting work in The Hunger Games comes from the adult actors, and from a series of scenes that illustrate how excess can be as anaesthetizing as it is rewarding. “You two are in for a treat,” trills Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the noxious MC of the District 12 Reaping, after Katniss and Peeta have been separated from their families and boarded the luxury train that is sweeping them off to their likely deaths. “Crystal chandeliers! Platinum doorknobs!” It’s more likely that the young people in her over-manicured care will appreciate regular access to food than the post-apocalyptic equivalent of the Restoration Hardware catalogue. But Effie can’t possibly acknowledge the immiseration that creates her elaborate outfits, powers the bullet train on which she travels, and covers the tables at which her charges can eat only once they’re marked for slaughter.
Later in the movie, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Katniss and Peeta’s drunken but not un-savvy mentor, blanches watching a Capitol family gives their children play toys for a battle they’ll never have to fight. For them, the Hunger Games are another opportunity to consume, to place bets and to host elaborate parties, rather than evidence of their own investment in injustice. The pageantry leading up to the Games distances the viewers from what they’re actually watching. The public coffers supply Katniss and Peeta with a sumptuously-furnished apartment, designer training tracksuits, gorgeous outfits to wear to pre- and post-competition interviews with the fantastically unctuous Ceaser Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). The movie doesn’t make this as clear as the books do, but the traumas of the games themselves are an opportunity for further personal consumer spending. If you give good show, as Katniss and Peeta do, their mentors can persuade sponsors to buy Tributes necessities ranging from a cup of hot soup to antibiotic creams that arrive, like everything else considered a luxury in this world, in hues and textures that make them look plucked from a Wet ‘n’ Wild line of eye glitter.
What for residents of the Capitol is a matter of consumerist dilettantism is for everyone else a brutal one-person escape valve for an entire continent’s aspirations to rise above their class. Rather than giving everyone an opportunity to improve their lot, Panem requires that its citizens accept unbearable personal risk for even minor improvements in their access to basic resources. Want more grain and oil for your family? You can get it, but only if you’re willing to accept an increased chance of getting picked as a Tribute. Want a opportunity to move your family permanently into better housing, and to win increased food allocations to your district for a year? Then step right up to the Hunger Games—and if you’re lucky enough to survive (particularly when your competition’s been groomed to kill you since birth, making a lie of this theoretical meritocracy) and become a victor, be very aware of the fact that you might have to head back into the arena for the Quarter Quell, held every 25 years, which pits Hunger Games champions against each other. These are menacingly punitive disincentives to want something better, much less to actually reach for it.
The movie, by necessity, has the same problem as Collins’ novel: it’s about the children who have an incomplete view of the system and its incentive structure, rather than the adults who are fully aware of its implications. The full scope of Panem’s culture, politics and technology are frustratingly tempting, and mostly out of view. We know that Katniss’s mother succumbed to depression in the wake of her husband’s death in a mining accident. But we only get a sense of Katniss’s contempt for that failure of will, rather than a sense of the crushing despair her mother must have experienced. Panem took her hopes, and its industry took her husband. She’s old enough to know exactly how sick a joke it is to tell Hunger Games competitors “May the odds be ever in your favor.” The odds are never in your favor.
Keeping the motivations and emotions of adults opaque isn’t the only way the movie adaptation ofThe Hunger Games blunts the full impact of the Capitol’s brutality. It was inevitable, given the age of the novels’ core fan base, that the movie would have to aim to get a PG-13 rating, and it earns that commercially-vital stamp by minimizing the book’s brutal violence at every turn. When Katniss attacks a group of Career tributes with Tracker Jackers, genetically engineered wasps with super-strong venom, the scene’s shot in the same jittery fashion as many of the action sequences, making it hard to see the impact of the bugs clearly. Katniss, who is stung, pries a bow from the dead hands of a girl who is killed by the insects’ venom, and we see her rival’s body through her distorted, hallucinatory vision: it’s a framing that denies both us and Katniss a clear-eyed reckoning with the murder she’s done, even in self-defense. Later, the act that marks Katniss as a rebel is the decision to mourn and decorate the body of a Tribute with whom she’d teamed up with, not in temporary self-interest but out of affinity. But while little Rue’s body, strewn with flowers, is a pathetic, moving sight, most of the other dead female Tributes get the same treatment from the camera: they may be cut, or artfully smeared with mud, but their unmarked skin is flawless, their eyes liquid and glossy even in death. They’re like dead deer, rather than dead people.
We only see the trauma of these deaths, and then only in part, at the very end of the competition when a Career named Cato, who has been the most vicious competitor in the Games, confronts Peeta and Katniss. He’s bloodied and hysterical, aware for the first time that he’s been raised not to win, but to provide an excellent show in the course of his dying. When Katniss kills him, it’s an act of mercy, his torment hidden under a writhing mass of the beasts who are devouring him. She’s Diana, but instead of turning Acteon into a deer and feeding him to the wolves as punishment for him seeing her nakedness, she is dispatching him out of, if not love, contempt for the system that put them both in that position.
But her reward isn’t escape. Instead, Katniss and Peeta are repackaged as consumer goods themselves, dressed up in even more elaborate costumes for their return to Flickerman’s couch, and paraded out on tour for Panem’s citizens to adore. The Hunger Games may be a brutal pageant. They’re also, as it turns out, a form of product testing.