Bread and circuses feed the overwrought dystopia of ‘The Hunger Games’
Strange, how much the post-apocalyptic world portrayed in The Hunger Games looks like a mining town outside Pittsburgh. Maybe it’s a subtle suggestion that, if Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum becomes president, can a world of privation and iron-fisted dictatorship be far behind? But maybe I’m reading too much into that.
The Hunger Games is an unlikely topic for girl-friendly young adult fiction, in part because it’s action-packed, with only tangential hints of romance, and in part because its stylistic forebears aren’t the romantic poets and novelists of 19th century England, but the legends of Greek and Roman mythology, filtered through the realities of Herodotus’ histories.
The characters’ names fall into two categories: Those that sound like they were created by an 8-year-old Victorian girl naming her dolls and pet cats (Katniss and Primrose Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, Haymitch Abernathy) and those that sound like ancient Romans who married into elite Jewish families (Caesar Flickerman, Seneca Crane, Claudius Templesmith). It’s all very hit-and-myth.
The Roman poet Juvenal said, “Two things only people want: Bread and circuses.” In Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, she combines the two, evident in the title itself. In a dystopian future following some implied holocaust that resulted in a failed revolution, residents of The Capitol live in decadent excess, enjoying the spoils of victory, while the descendants of the losing peons of Panem subsist in one of 12 districts. Folks in the hinterlands live in fear and squalor, hunting for squirrels to feed themselves and stoking cast-iron stoves with driftwood to stay warm while the aristocrats live in a modern, technological metropolis.
Like Logan’s Run — or maybe The Handmaid’s Tale — their lives are made worse by the threat of The Hunger Games, an annual televised horror show where one teenaged male and female from each district become “tributes,” competing in a ‘til-the-death battle where the sole winner is rewarded with riches. It’s like the Lotto, only with a game of Russian roulette thrown in.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are the tributes from District 12, the equivalent of the Sun Belt Conference in Panem’s hierarchy — that is, not likely to field a national champion anytime soon.
Of course, they do really well in the games. Everyone loves an underdog.
It’s sometimes difficult to separate what works in The Hunger Games from what doesn’t. The first appearance of bewigged Woody Harrelson, playing Katniss and Peeta’s mentor (the only previous District 12 victor in history), generates titters from the audience; by the end, though, he’s delivered a more than serviceable performance. The contrast between current reality TV detritus like Survivor and American Idol with the gladiatorial brutality of ancient Rome is interesting, but the film never attains the tone of satire that would hit it home. If you want to see a movie that gets it right, rent The Truman Show.
Most of the faults are attributed to an over-long screenplay that lacks pacing, and mostly slapshod direction by Gary Ross. Ross brings no personality or point of view to the endeavor, just tons of convoluted visuals. It’s edited too frenetically during the action scenes, and fails to orient the viewer. Many of the plot points don’t quite come together. (Katniss has obviously watched the Hunger Games before — how can she be so guileless about how to play the game?)
Still, there’s no denying the power of some of the images. A training film invokes the uneasiness of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad, with all the Nazi iconography intact; the garish costuming — a cross between Dr. Seuss and The Wizard of Oz — is impressive, even if over-the-top. It toggles infuriatingly between being savvy and silly.
But then there’s Katniss herself, emotionally played by Lawrence with well-scrubbed conviction. It’s exciting seeing a strong young woman hold her own. For most of The Hunger Games, it was a relief simply to see a teenaged girl in the woods who could take care of herself, and not be chased by wolves or protected by a wan, sparkly boyfriend. During the climax, though, that rule gets violated when … well, just see it for yourself. You know you will anyway.
The kid is all right
Playing Peeta, the male lead in The Hunger Games may seem like Josh Hutcherson’s big break, but he has been on the scene for a while. He was just 10 when he appeared in his first TV pilot, but it was in 2010, when he appeared in the Oscar-nominated The Kids Are All Right, that he began to play more sophisticated roles.
But one of his smallest roles — and his most current — is also personally important to him.
In Kids, Hutcherson played the son of a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore); in real life, the straight actor has been an outspoken friend to the gay community. Recently, he made a video for the group StraightButNotNarrow.org, an organization designed to fill what the founders saw as a serious need: A forum in which straight people could show their support for their LGBT friends.
In the short, cheeky video (part of a series on the group’s YouTube page), Hutcherson voices his support for gay rights. “Does it really matter if your guy friends like guys over girls? I mean doesn’t that just kind of leave more girls for you?” Hutcherson quips. “We’re not going to let anyone say anything bad about anyone ever again in the history of the world.”
That video may not earn Hutcherson many new film roles, but he’s hardly wanting for work. He’s “reading a bunch of scripts,” he says; The Hunger Games franchise allows him the “freedom to be a little picky.” (Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy, hits screens in late 2013.)
For now, he’s just riding the wave of anticipation and buzz. Even before being cast, Hutcherson was a big fan of the books, but he was unprepared him for the rabid excitement of the series’ die-hard aficionados.
“I’ve never seen people be so passionate about something. And to know that it has to do with me in some way… it’s kind of crazy.”
Despite all the hullabaloo, Hutcherson has only encountered what he calls “polite stalkers,” including ones who followed him home after a dinner out because, they explained, they didn’t want to interrupt his dinner. Being famous for being hungry can have some perks.
— Jenny Block
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 23, 2012.