The Hunger Games appears to be an allegory about modern society. It takes place in the future dystopian nation of Panem, with an all-powerful Capitol that subjugates its 12 districts to slave labor and an annual event named the Hunger Games, where 24 district children are tossed into a death pit in order to maim and kill each other. The citizens of Panem watch the games unfold each year as entertainment, waiting for one victor to emerge from the carnage and be championed a hero. There are obvious, inherent parallels one could draw between such a setting and the present day – the glorification of violence, the wholesale auctioning of human despair for TV ratings, the exploitation of the disenfranchised by a privileged few – and yet, what is this film really trying to say?
The largest criticism of the book was that it favored describing the action in great detail over exploring the allegorical potential inherent in the story. It leaned more towards (and, I suspect, for most readers acted as) spectacle, where we cheered and gasped at the twists and turns of death, destruction, and betrayal, rather than confront the unpleasantness inherent in the book’s themes. After all, reading about kids yielding deadly weapons against each other sure sounds a lot more fun than political and philosophical ramblings, doesn’t it?
In the novel we’re at least experiencing this world from the point of view of Katniss Everdene, the plucky 15 year old protagonist from the poorest district in Panem, who will occasionally have a critical thought or two about the world she lives in (mostly, though, she just wonders what boy she likes more). Because the universe of The Hunger Games dictates severe punishment at even a whisper of dissent, any possible reflection about the implications of such a world is utterly lost in the film translation. Since it’s incapable of exploring criticism of this world (or, by extension, ours) in a direct manner, the movie must rely on images to impart any sort of message; images that, for the most part, set out to thrill rather than enlighten us.
And that’s the biggest problem with the film adaptation, directed faithfully by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit). By their nature, films ask us to participate at a distance, as voyeurs. Here, we wind up playing the role of the Capitol: glued to the screen, waiting for the next action set piece, riding the roller coaster of success and failure of these sacrificial children with bated breath. But where’s the catharsis, the reflection, the lesson? There was tremendous opportunity to turn the lens around, show us the irony of playing spectator in a film where the spectacle of death is glorified to a terrifying degree. Unfortunately, that irony will almost certainly be lost on most of the audience, who will come out of the theater feeling more pumped up than enlightened.
Many fans will be satisfied. The film adapation certainly works as entertainment: the action is slick, the actors were well suited for their roles, the relatively slow build-up is commendable, and the world building is done with a subdued but effective visual style. On the surface, it appears to have more to say than your typical blockbuster, but what is it really saying? It denounces exploitative entertainment, yet invites its audience to revel in the exploitation of its characters. It condemns oppressive government, yet portrays its oppressive government in a seductive (although, admittedly, cartoonish) manner, and insinuates that with enough determination, those most oppressed can triumph – or at least, in the world of The Hunger Games, can be made to feel like winners, grateful to emerge from their struggles alive. And we, too, leave the theater feeling like winners, grateful that we had an opportunity to be thrilled so effectively.