Changing the Game

Unless you’re just a raging bibliophile, I imagine it’s almost impossible to complete The Hunger Games trilogy and not want to see it on the big screen…at least a little. Being in Paris certainly has its privileges…one of which was the early release of the first The Hunger Games film in theaters here (the 21st instead of the 23rd of March). With a few minor flaws, it’s a solid adaptation that hits all the important themes.

I imagine most of you reading this post already know the plot of The Hunger Games. If not, here’s a brief run down. In a post-apocalyptic United States, the country is divided into 13 Districts and a Capitol. When Districts 13 revolts, the Capitol brutally crushes it in battle. As a result, the rest of the Districts must send 2 tributes (a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18) to fight in a battle to the death–The Hunger Games–in order to remind them of their place in the pecking order. To varying degrees, each district is impoverished, its members working to death to provide the inhabitants of the Capit0l with all of the raw materials to support their sickeningly lavish lifestyle. In the first book (and film), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as tribute to take the place of her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), who has been chosen to represent District 12. Her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), accompanies her in the competition. The two have their supporters, namely Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former winner from District 12, and their stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Both Peeta and Katniss are capable–they have the strength to win the competition–but they also have the will power to defy the Capitol and turn the games upside down, sparking a series of events that span the next two books (and hopefully two more film sequels).

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, right) stands in her sister's place as a tribute for the Hunger Games.

My major frustrations with the film have to do with the casting and some of the performances. Most of the minor characters (the other tributes and Katniss’ mom (Paula Malcomson)) are right on. Stanley Tucci as the announcer Caesar Flickerman is perfect. Donald Sutherland seemed a strange choice for President Snow, as did Kravitz in the role of Katniss’ stylist. The former lacked menace while the latter lacked charisma. Harrelson was either completely miscast as the alcoholic and haunted Haymitch or just simply phoned this one in. Lawrence and Hutcherson were fine, although they’ll have to kick up the chemistry should a studio greenlight the sequel.

All that aside, I felt like Gary Ross‘s direction was fine. He didn’t languish over background material, and the 2 hours and 20 minutes run time went by with efficiency. The set designs and art direction were particularly impressive, especially with the settings for Districts 11 and 12. The former harkened back to segregation and the latter the Holocaust, even as it signaled the Appalachian mountain setting from the book. There’s other sci-fi influences here, most notably in the costumes of the peacemakers, which recall THX 1138. The Capitol citizens all look appropriately ridiculous.

The central themes of the book are all here. While I’ll say more about them in a subsequent post, it’s worth noting that the film points to the horrors of our own world, even as it focuses on the otherworldly horrors of the games. As I mentioned, District 12 recalls the Holocaust and District 11 racism and segregation (even though both Districts are integrated, the ways in which shots of them played out suggested a racial majority/minority in each). No matter the District, worker exploitation is prevalent, be it coal-mining or farming. The Capitol citizens’ obliviousness to the suffering on the part of the 99% ( to borrow a contemporary political term) is only made more grotesque by the vehemence with which they wish for the death of the combatants and salivate over the corpses when death comes. Of course, the tributes in the games bring to mind this-worldly troubles as well. When Cato and a few other combatants team up to take on Katniss or to take advantage of the weaker contestants, viewers could be reminded of the consistent news reports of bullying in schools across our country.

But, as we see, Katniss is wiser and kinder than her opponents and better than those who consider themselves her superiors. In Katniss’ “rural” origins, her care for Rue, and her ultimate defiance of the system, I am mindful of a few Jesus parallels. I found myself thinking of the questions that often swirled around him, most notably, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” District 12 is (or at least seems to be) the most reviled district and the poorest of the poor. The final two books (and hopefully the films) will reveal how Katniss also has a potential higher calling and how both she and her followers struggle to live that out. But there are no simple correlations. Katniss does play the game and resorts to violence when she has to. This, as I have said before, will always put our contemporary cinematic heroes and heroines in conflict with the Prince of Peace. However, she still defies the rules of the game, and in doing so, makes the whole system look foolish, a choice that will come back to haunt her soon.

Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutcherson) train for the games.

The Hunger Games is a good story and is lucky to have a good film adaptation. That some viewers might be wary of or object to teenage violence misses the point that teenagers are already killing one another in our own world. In fact, governments the world over send teenagers to do their violent bidding. Just consider the ages of most of the British soldiers killed in a road-side bomb two weeks ago in Afghanistan. Moreover, to bemoan this narrative violence is to also miss out on the ways in which our own “Capitols” create oppressive socio-economic systems that drive teenagers to violence within our own communities. In the end, it is stories like these that can wake us up to our own destructive behavior and show violent citizens and systems that there can be another way of being in the world.

The Hunger Games (142 mins) is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images (all involving teens) and is in theaters everywhere.

Check back in the near future for my review of a new book that explores the Gospel implications of The Hunger Games.