Watching Gary Ross’s The Hunger Games, I found myself wishing, quite possibly for the first time in my life, that a movie were darker and grittier. I am by no means a fan of the “nolanization” of Hollywood, the recent trend of making absolutely everything edgier—especially since in edgier all too often translates to dull and humorless. (And I say that as someone who likes many of Christopher Nolan’s films very much, in spite of how inept the guy is at directing coherent action scenes.) One might also consider The Hunger Games, a film about kids killing each other for the entertainment of a privileged elite, dark enough to begin with. Yet Ross and Suzanne Collins (author of the Young Adult novel series the film is based on and co-author of the screenplay with Ross and Billy Ray) are content to use that premise to create an admittedly competent and often thrilling action/adventure movie, while their reluctance to delve into some of the more disturbing aspects of their story limits its impact.
The film revolves around Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old girl hailing from the 12th district of Panem, a futuristic and dystopian version of the United States. After the districts rebelled against the Capitol of Panem and lost the subsequent civil war, the titular Hunger Games were created: every year, each district would have to send two randomly-chosen teenagers (a boy and a girl, referred to as “tributes”) to the Capitol, where they would be made to fight to the death in a giant free-for-all until only one was left standing. The Games serve to remind the districts of their defeat and to prevent any further rebellion (which doesn’t entirely make sense, if you think about it), but also to provide entertainment for the elites living in the Capitol, as the whole thing is filmed and broadcast all across Panem.
When Katniss’s younger sister Prim is picked for this year’s Hunger Games, Katniss immediately volunteers to replace her, and she soon finds herself aboard a bullet train to the Capitol. She’s joined by her fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and their “mentor” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the only person from the 12th district to ever win the Games, now a cynic and a drunk who seems at first not the least bit useful. Once at the Capitol, the tributes are paraded for all to see and interviewed by talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci in a garish blue wig), while behind the scenes they train under the watchful eye of Hunger Games producer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). Soon enough the Games begin, and an entire nation watches rapturously as 24 kids proceed to murder each other on prime time television.
The Hunger Games has a lot going for it, starting with Lawrence as Katniss. Katniss is a great action heroine, headstrong and driven, an adept hunter with survival skills to make Bear Grylls jealous. She’s clearly in over her head when it comes to currying favor at the Capitol, and throughout she remains torn between the promise she made her sister to win the Games and her desire to do it on her own terms. Her relationship with Peeta is refreshingly complex, her initial animosity (likely caused by hurt pride, if her reaction when he makes her “look weak” and a recurring flashback are to be believed) slowly morphing into respect and friendship without losing any of its ambiguity. Lawrence continues to impress after her strong performance in Winter’s Bone, using the film to showcase her emotional range and screen presence. If the film feels a little too long at times (it clocks in at almost two and a half hours long), especially in its second half, it is never because of Lawrence, who is as comfortable outrunning CGI fireballs as she is sharing an intimate and emotionally complex scene with Hutcherson.
Where the film breaks down a little is at the allegorical level. Like many science fiction stories, The Hunger Games is set in a sort of funhouse mirror version of our world, a dystopian future that’s not quite as unbelievable as it seems. Early scenes are set in Katniss’s native 12th district, with a muddy-brown-to-dark-grey color palette that highlights the poverty and squalor in which most people outside of the Capitol live. The action then moves to the Capitol with its tall, gleaming buildings, its superior and easily accessible technology, and its decadent people wearing gaudy costumes and layer upon layer of makeup as they feast on cakes and candy. It’s neither the most subtle nor the most original commentary—last year’s In Time, to name just the most recent example, used similar imagery—but it’s effective at portraying a society split between have-nots and have-way-too-muchs.
More interesting are the titular Hunger Games and the way they serve as a commentary on our collective relationship, as a society, to televised violence, especially used for entertainment purposes. The first half of the film, in that regard, is much more successful than the second, thanks in large part to Tucci, equal parts slimy and seductive as reality TV host Caesar Flickerman. Even before the kids get thrown into the arena to try to kill each other, they are subjected to intense pressure and made to understand that what matters is not who they are, but the way they are perceived. Flickerman’s interview of Katniss, a few days before the Games begin, is a master class in audience manipulation; after building her up in front of several hundreds of the most garishly dressed Capitol denizens, he makes her look vulnerable and, with a final comment directed more at his audience than at her, subtly implies that she is doomed to lose. If you’ve ever watched a reality TV show, this should feel familiar.
Unfortunately, once the Games proper start, the commentary loses some of its bite. Some of it is undoubtedly to blame on the fact that this is a movie about an ultraviolent television show that, for obvious economic reasons, had to secure a PG-13 rating. And although, to be fair, The Hunger Games pushes that PG-13 rating pretty far, the violence remains sufficiently abstract to detract from the horror we should be feeling. It’s Hollywood violence, which we immediately recognize as not real; when, in what’s arguably the film’s most physically disturbing scene, a character gets his neck suddenly and audibly snapped, we wince, but the camera moves on immediately, and so do we. This refusal to dwell on the violence paradoxically turns it into the very spectacle the film seems to be decrying.
The main issue, though, has nothing to do with how graphic the film is or isn’t, and everything with Collins and Ross’s narrative choices and how they portray Katniss and the other participants in the Games. The night before the Games are set to begin, Peeta tells Katniss that he fully expects to die in the arena, and that he won’t let the Games’ organizers turn him into something he isn’t, to which Katniss responds that she understands but can’t think like that if she wants to win. It’s a great conversation that sets her up to make some difficult moral choices down the line, which sadly never materialize. Even when Katniss teams up with the adorable Rue (Amandla Stenberg), she’s never forced to face the fact that she will eventually have to kill her if she wants to win the game, which in turns means that we are never made to realize that rooting for Katniss to win actually means rooting for her to kill other kids. This is compounded by the fact that most of the kids Katniss faces are evil bastards who actually enjoy killing, stereotypical movie villains rather than characters with whom we can empathize, and whose death would actually mean something. At the screening I was at, a sizeable portion of the audience actually cheered when a particularly heinous character bit it. Perhaps they were missing the point; or perhaps the film lost track of its own point halfway through.
Of course, eliciting that kind of reaction could be Collins and Ross’s goal. Perhaps we are meant to cheer for Katniss and boo Cato and Marvel and other cardboard cut-out villains, only then to realize that we’re acting just like the people watching the Games from the Capitol. “Root for your champion, cry when he gets killed? That’s sick,” Katniss’s best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, whose brief appearances only serve to set up the sequels) comments at the beginning of the film. Then, of course, Katniss becomes a tribute, and Gale ends up watching the Games and rooting for her. And so do we. Katniss’s unflinching heroism makes her easy to root for, after all, and The Hunger Games provides plenty of entertainment and thrills. Still, I wouldn’t have said no to some additional moral complexity.