Reviews of The Hunger Games (2012) and related work

The Hunger Games (2012Moving picture, 142 minutes)

Seen in 2017.

A YA imitation of Rollerball (1975), The Running Man (1987) and Battle Royale (2000) for a generation raised on reality TV.

I saw Stephen Colbert as Flickerman in the “Hungry for Power Games” before I saw this film. Flickerman is a good character, but short-lived in the popular consciousness, relative to box-office receipts. In a 2022-03-24 Forbes article, Scott Mendelson placed The Hunger Games’s in the economic history of filmmaking. It was based on a trilogy of novels, not an original screenplay, but, Mendelson wrote:

Since then, we haven’t seen a single new top-tier live-action blockbuster franchise that wasn’t either A) a continuation of an already existing cinematic property or B) a new franchise within the existing DC/Marvel brands.

That statement is heavily qualified, but The Hunger Games was indeed a stepping stone on the way down from a previous era of medium-risk originality to a decade of low-risk, film-franchise-only continuity. By way of explanation, Mendelson theorized that “Audiences only pretended to care about the franchise’s politics”, noting a decline in profits from film to film when politics gradually became more important.

Politics weren’t important at all in this first entry. The Hunger Games gets called a dystopia, but I wonder about that. Previous dystopias through the years have been built around some idea of what is wrong and why it doesn’t get fixed. You get materialism in Lord of the World (1907), technology in The Machine Stops (1909), nominally Taylorism in We (1924), hopeless stratification in both Metropolis (1925) and Brave New World (1932), collectivism in Anthem (1938/1946), fascism and drugs in Kallocain (1940), the elimination of history in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the automation of labour in Player Piano (1952), simplicity in Fahrenheit 451 (1953), banality and bureaucracy in Brazil (1985), misogyny and theocracy in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), corporatism in Jennifer Government (2003) and so on. Most of those drivers are present in the background of The Hunger Games to some extent, but as a dystopia it is without any central driver. Likewise, as science fiction it is without any central or novel idea, but it doesn’t have the density or credibility of cyberpunk.

The lack of ideas is indicated by the decision to make haute couture designer Cinna the only moral person in the capitol. The film is extremely superficial. If anything, media hypocrisy and impractical fashion are offered as the hallmarks and eyeball kicks of this dystopia. There is no attempt to explain why the majority of the population plays along, or what the ideology of the state is supposed to be. The problem can’t be hunger, since no effective control over food supplies is actually outlined or made plausible by any description of the ecology or technology of the setting. In place of an interesting central problem, The Hunger Games posits that a handful of “tributes” being told what to say in front of a camera is somehow propping up an unspecified tyranny. On the level of subtext, I suppose the story is about unease with real US culture—including this film—being based on celebrity, glamour and spectacle. A separate subtext maps onto US libertarianism, with the thirteen districts (number 13 is not mentioned in this film) corresponding to the Thirteen Colonies, and the evil capitol to Washington D.C. Hence the title of the tyrant is simply “president”.

This is a dystopia and a science fiction movie only to the same extent as it is an action movie, a post-apocalypse, an adventure, a family drama, and so on. Its primary genre is romance, in that it comes to revolve around the largely asocial Katniss’s feelings for Peeta and Gale, which—like the politics—are deliberately poorly explored here: a blank slate for the audience, rather than an Austen grump. Indeed almost all of the characterizations are too weak for any of the genres. The saving graces of the film are (A) Katniss’s relatively well-played concern for Primrose as an emotional foundation and (B) the explicit acknowledgement that exposure is the main killer in the games. The latter connects to a popular reality TV motif and makes a lot of sense in connection to the starvation the games are supposed to commemorate.

The only philosophical or political aspect of the story that I could call pleasant or interesting is the way that nonviolent resistance within the game is a viable counter to its fascist purpose. The regime is trying to inculcate the audience with the idea of society as an individual struggle for survival, where there can be no mutualism or collective (resistance): Primo Levi’s spurious “continuous war of everyone against everyone” in the concentration camps. The regime is also trying to undermine cooperation between the districts as such in the larger struggle for liberation. Unfortunately, nonviolent resistance is effective here only because the regime recruits people to this game against their will and then broadcast it live. Given their media monopoly, there is no reason why they should do either of those things. They could get actors and fake it like reality TV, or use non-political convicts, hook them on aggression-inducing stimulants and promise their release. If anything, that would make the writing more meaningful. I get the sense that nonviolent resistance is here because the original author was inspired by the protagonists’ defiance in Romeo and Juliet, i.e. primarily for romantic reasons.

References here: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Story of Science Fiction (2018).

moving picture fiction

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013Moving picture, 146 minutes)

Seen in 2017.

In response to popular uprisings inspired by Katniss’s solidarity and suicide attempt, the new organizer of the Games places Katniss in a celebrity glamour narrative juxtaposed with unwarranted government brutality to take away hope. Through the choice of recruiting disgruntled veterans of past games, who thought they were home free, the media stunt backfires halfway through the movie, as intended. Again, fashion plays a large part, and the great designer is martyred.

This one takes the time to discuss, mainly through Philip Seymour Hoffman channeling Steve Bannon, how society is controlled through the media monopoly. It isn’t a plausible model. It requires district borders to be non-porous. There is no sign of resistance agents talking to each other, by shortwave radio or other means. Jabberjays, though present, are not explained to be spies as they are in the books. Despite isolation, the government sends soldiers even into peaceful district 12 to antagonize the populace and inexplicably kill everybody while they’re already stretched thin elsewhere, just begging for the uprising to grow. I like the scene in district 11, where a single elderly man does the three-fingered salute and dies for it, quiet and dignified like the cleaned-up myth of Martin Luther King’s civil-rights activists. That guy should be more important to the resistance, and more interesting as a main character, than Katniss.

The new director, Francis Lawrence, is more competent than Gary Ross. There is a stronger effort to characterize the contestants, though Primrose is the only character who seems to be developing, aside from Katniss becoming an inexplicable badass. The faux-Roman vibe is also stronger here, with the chariots going through a nice Circus Maximus. Jeffrey Wright plays nerds well. The action scenes are much improved; I like the archery hologram practice session, and there is no equivalent to Rue reacting implausibly to impalement with a blank expression as she does in the first film. As with the fire in that film, the contestants insist on running along the front of the poisonous mist bank to get a good tracking shot, not directly away from it, and then they just wash off the blisters. The engineered/mutated mandrills are kind of dumb, but more fun than the dogs of the first film. The clock and lightning are nothing but dumb, taking the place of serious problem-solving for food and water. Suitably, the idea of nonviolence is not driven to caricature—even Gandhi knew how to compromise—but it is curious that the “career” veterans should be so bloodthirsty after being betrayed by the regime and having tasted the empty luxuries of the capitol for years.

moving picture sequel fiction