Spoilers may follow (as this is a current release)
Director: Gary Ross
The Hunger Games is a film adaptation of a novel of the same name that takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopian universe. The premise revolves around a violent competition between various “districts” that had risen up against the Capitol and failed over 70 years prior to the film. Two contestants (one boy and one girl) are chosen from the 12 districts each year to compete to the death in what is called the Hunger Games. The games are a media spectacle that both represent the spectacle of war and TV game shows. This is no coincidence as the author of the books (who also co-wrote the screenplay) even cited the influence of the book as what she saw as the similarities of reality TV and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
The two main characters (Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark) come from what is implied to be Appalachia, and the coal mining roots of their district are made quite evident. Images of the district show that not much has changed for this Appalachian district, poverty is still quite evident and the Capitol’s extracting of two contestants for the games demonstrates their power over the district. Before she knows she will be a competitor in the games, Katniss has a conversation with a friend of hers about the games where he argues that if people “just stopped watching them” that the games would just stop; and Katniss responds by essentially writing off the idea off as naive. This sort of acknowledgement of the naivety of such a statement demonstrates how obvious it should be to us as viewers of the film and to the oppressed districts what the Hunger Games represent: the domination of the districts by the Capitol. Later on and throughout the film, a love interest is developed between Katniss and Peeta. This interest is portrayed as a complex mix of genuine interest and manipulation by the state as a method of controlling the population by giving them a media love interest that they can have hope in. This is a parallel to the “celebrity culture” that is quite prevalent in the United States, whereas in the film, the culture is being intentionally promoted as a means of making the masses passive.
Unfortunately the games themselves, which make up a big part of the film, do not contain as much social commentary as they could have. This is perhaps why Roger Ebert commented that the film “avoids the opportunities sci-fi provides for social criticism.” I think his observation that the film avoids such social commentary may be a bit strong, considering the entire world itself is set up as a critique of imperialism and oppression as well as portraying rebellion and revolt in positive ways (which is hardly a standard plot device for a Hollywood blockbuster these days).
The universe of Hunger Games is a mix of an Orwellian style authoritarian rule over oppressed districts and a depiction of a “decedent” society of wealth and fascination with game show/reality television. The contrast between the bleakness of District 12 and the need for its very existence to be at the service of the wealthy Capitol is perhaps a more honest commentary on a world where mass wealth exist and depend on abject poverty. Thus the very setup of the film is a commentary, although it is certainly lacking in terms of some depth. For example, when a rebellion is depicted in one of the districts during the games: the nature of that district and who are the protagonists of the rebellion are not elaborated.
Resistance of the oppressed takes various forms in the film. The most obvious being the rebellion that occurs during the games. But perhaps more subtle is the very end where it is announced that one of the “tributes” from District 12 must kill the other. Katniss decides that they ought to both take their lives instead, which would itself be a “final act of resistance” that ends up saving both of their lives. The complex play between their relationship, their resistance to the Capitol, and their origins in what is perhaps one of the more oppressed districts is a nice overview of how complex systems of exploitation and oppression really are.
There remains the question of “is The Hunger Games a left wing film?” Unlike the Cyberpunk Review, this website does not list the “degree” that a film is left wing. Instead films should be viewed for what they “bring to the table” overall. For example, Avatar was an interesting case of what could be considered an anti-imperialist film becoming one of the best selling of all time, yet it had significant problems of how race was depicted. Hunger Games certainly deals with various issues that ought to be of interest to leftists and progressive folks in general. While more obscure films have more room for being more faithful to revolutionary theory and history (and certainly have an important place in film), perhaps there is something more subversive about a blockbuster that deals with the nature of rebellion and control that is quite important as well.
Embarrassingly enough I actually read the books, and they’re far more radical believe it or not.
I read the first book- didn’t find it radical at all- found it annoyingly trite (and this is from a big leftie adult who loves YA). Thought it was completely confusing that the author set up this world based on imperialism and oppression and then kept skittering around it. And I know it’s meant to be critical of the world of reality tv meets actual war but at times it seemed like a love poem to it. This book actually drives me bonkers. When I think of Octavia Butler’s world of the Parable of the Sower which takes on oppression, inequality and rebellion head on- Hunger Games seems to almost infantilize these issues. I was a big a reader when I was kid- and I would’ve hated this book then too- is it weird that I found it to be surface area nonsense? I think kids books can take on big issues head on and treat them beautifully. I don’t think Hunger Games did that. I haven’t read the other two, and don’t plan on seeing the movie- No Name- does it get better than this?
According to this review the book and the movie share a lot: the nature of the plot is commentary, but it lacks any depth at all. Where there is depth it’s about clothes, teenage crushes, and a kind of voyeur sexualization/objectification of Katniss in the Capitol. The commentary is the back drop- without it I could be reading Twilight (which I haven’t for the record). Once we get to the games themselves I feel like we’re on MILF Island (30 Rock parody of survivor type reality shows) but with kid death. It should be brutal, and it is, but there are so many missed opportunities to take it one step further. Wow- now I’ve gone on a lot about a kids book I didn’t like. Sorry about that, just finished it last night and am still trying to figure out what all the fuss is about.
I do agree that there were missed opportunitites in the film, and I cannot comment on the book as I haven’t read it. That said, I can certainly see the perspective that my review is giving too much credit to the film. But I was trying to simply point out that such “commentary” (whether mild or subdle) is much needed in the arena (mass Hollywood releases) is needed and that is why it is worthy of at least some consideration.
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