The Hunger Games will sap up comparisons to science fiction. That’s what happens with stories about futuristic dystopias and freaky hovercraft. The better comparison is to Roman or Biblical epics of the fifties. Its story, of the youth of twelve outlying provinces exploited for the bloodsport of a wealthy and perverse capital, is reminiscent of Ben Hur. It even has a grand chariot parade, with crowds adoring Katniss Everdeen, a coal-haired Cleopatra.
These are essentially stories of the risks of opulence, how wealthy societies are built on this sort of cruelty and exploitation. Violent spectacle is seen as the dark payment for a vital but oppressive society. The suggestion is that civilization is little more than a sophisticated decoration of the primitive instinct.
Science fiction typically presents itself as the future, when really it is the present in disguise. But the Hunger Games begins by looking into the past. This is a future that first takes shape in a dim Appalachia, lingering in a permanent time warp, where even a nuclear war seems unable to change much. The coal shaft explosions are still as present as the class struggles that have marked the place for hundreds of years.
This is the world of Katniss Everdeen, and it bears considerable resemblance to the world of Ree Dolly, Jennifer Lawrence’s previous heroine from 2010’s Winter’s Bone. In each film, she has played a backwoods teenager breadwinner with a missing father and an enfeebled mother. Lawrence seems to earn these roles at least in part because her mild Kentucky accent is Hollywood’s idea of backwoods credibility. That she fills each truthseeker with the same blend of bravery and vulnerability is cinema’s good fortune.
Katniss volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, who is chosen by lottery to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a twenty four-teen televised fight-to-the-death showdown. By some twist of logic, this ceremony keeps the unruly districts from rebelling against the kleptocratic capital.
The story catches Katniss in two swirls, her impending fame and her looming death. From the latter, we arrive at a young woman revealing her sturdy character as she faces her demise. For the latter, the bow-and-arrow tomboy receives a makeover into a young woman. There’s a moment when the coal-country girl, partial to hunting clothing, goes for a twirl in front of a T.V. audience in a stylish dress. It’s a moment of surprise exhiliration, and it’s one of the film’s unexpected best moments. One of the shortcomings is that it loses sight of the fact that it is a coming-of-age story set in bizarre circumstances.
“Coming-of-age” means romance, as do Y.A. novels (the film is based on a book series by Suzanne Collins). A movie aimed at young women means “torn between two men.” So of course it includes a love story, with the wimpy but likable Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a fellow contestant from her district. The dreamboat Gale (Liam Hemsworth) sits this one out back home, leaving a triangle for future films. The suggestion is that the refreshment of purity, authenticity and youth poses the greatest challenge to corruption.
Much has been wondered about the film’s politics. Are they left or are they right? Such is the state of politics in this country that the populist impulse on either side has come to resemble one another in some ways. The orientation is less important than their accuracy, of a centralized power structure draining the life and wealth out of the rest of the country, and the society that sublimates its violent imagination into competitive rituals.
But does The Hunger Games get this right? Or is this a case of authors overestimating portents found in simple progress? In some ways, The Hunger Games is its own best evidence. Twenty years ago, a movie about a teenage murder pageant—aimed at teenage girls, no less—would have caused protestors to lay in front of the theater doors. Now it’s a girls’ night out.
It drags at times but I enjoyed The Hunger Games. And I’m also pleased to have a genuine event movie that everyone has seen, the first of several this year. Even better, its soundtrack hit No. 1 this week, something that used to be routine. It’s like taking a step back, appropriately, to 1984.