[The Hunger Games ? Produced and distributed by Lionsgate ? Directed by Gary Ross ? Written by Suzanne Collins and Gary Ross]
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is the first volume of a trilogy set in a not-too-distant future. An unspecified apocalyptic event has destroyed much of North America, and a new state named Panem has arisen to replace the old. It comprises 12 districts under the tyrannical command of the Capitol, a central city inhabited by a smarmy but ruthless ruling class who wallow in cheesy sentimentality even as they entertain themselves with the cruelest of spectacles. While they cry over the plight of their subjects, they blithely ignore that they are responsible for their subjects’ suffering in the first place.
The Capitol keeps the underclass down with man-made famines. The only hope for relief comes annually at an event known as the Hunger Games, in which one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected by lottery from each of the districts to participate in gladiatorial contests. The games are covered by the broadcast media with all the gushing pomp and crude cynicism of our Olympic Games, complete with maudlin interviews with the youth who are about to be offered up to satisfy the Capitol’s obscure needs. Accordingly, these contestants, known as Tributes, must fight to the death until only one remains alive. The broadcasters chortle endlessly about them in an unnerving atmosphere of forced gaiety. But their enthusiasm is only heartless show business meant to move the lethal proceedings cheerily along. The real agenda is to sustain continuing conflict among the districts. Kept desperately poor and continually deprived of food, these polities have an unholy stake in the games. If one of their Tributes wins, he or she will bring home a bounty in the form of food and consumer goods.
Like most intelligent science fiction, The Hunger Games is not really about the future. It’s about what’s under our eyes right here, right now. Collins made this clear in an interview. Her inspiration for writing her young-adult novel came to her while she was channel hopping between an inane reality show and news coverage of the Iraq war. She couldn’t help but notice the grotesque similarity between the two. As explained by Panem’s president, the purpose of the annual games is to punish the underclass for having rebelled over a hundred years ago. They are to be reminded forcibly of their abject position yet also to be sustained with a small spark of hope. The Capitol could, after all, forego the games and simply kill outright a number of district dwellers annually, but doing so might generate the kind of desperation that foments revolution. Better to have the district kids fight one another rather than the Capitol. Sounds Machiavellian or perhaps Cheneyian, doesn’t it?
Some, however, are not willing to go along with the drill. One of these is the novel’s protagonist, Katniss. She’s a 16-year-old who has been taking care of her widowed mother and her younger sister since her father died in a mine explosion. Her skills as an archer enable her to furnish her family’s table with small game and to raise money by selling the animals’ skins. Suffering through her hardship, she has developed a quiet, self-contained poise that serves her well when she must meet challenges. So when her 12-year-old sister is chosen as her district’s next Tribute, Katniss knows what must be done: She volunteers to take her place. The narrative then follows her as she meets her greatest challenge: the games.
Director Gary Ross has brought the novel to the screen, with Collins writing the screenplay. The result is an unusually faithful production, although it fails to include Katniss’s first-person narration. Many filmmakers find first-person narration clumsy, but here I think it would have worked well. Much of the pathos and heroism of the novel resides in Katniss’s staid voice as she tells of her ghastly experiences in Panem. Ross has staged the film so that Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss, is in almost every scene, to suggest that we are seeing events through her eyes. But I would have preferred to hear her thoughts, especially regarding the young men in the film. While Katniss is wholly unlike conventional heroines of our time in not obsessing over romantic complications, she has a natural interest in boys, and they in her. At the same time, she seems to understand she’s not fully ready for such matters.
Another aspect of the novel is better served. That’s the allusive symbolism Collins deploys. Katniss is clearly meant to recall the Roman goddess Diana, the virgin archer dedicated to protecting maidens. The film respects this, even giving her arrows as silvery as Diana’s. I’m not sure what Collins’ allusive purpose on this point is beyond emphasizing Katniss’ honor as an accomplished, self-possessed young woman. But perhaps that’s enough. The state name, Panem, is also an allusion, invoking panem et circenses, bread and circuses, the Roman practice of appeasing the multitudes with cheap sustenance and entertaining spectacles. Here, however, the state seems intent upon doing the opposite, keeping the people nearly starving and humiliated with the spectacle of their own young butchering one another.
But there’s something more to the bread allusion.
Katniss’s fellow Tribute from her district, the aptly named Peeta, is the son of bakers who once saved her starving family by giving them free bread. In the novel—but oddly not in the film—he draws a telling and perhaps bitter analogy when he says that the Tributes are like loaves of bread offered up to the Capitol. Clearly, Collins’ central theme is founded on Christ’s sacrifice, the bread of life. The plot has Katniss sacrificing herself for her sister, and Peeta sacrificing himself for Katniss. At one point in the games, he suffers a wound meant for Katniss, who then hides him in a cave for three days, after which he’s restored to well-being.
I was surprised by the depth of Collins’ novel and the film made of it. Its narrative is not something new under the sun, reworking as it does the various commonplaces of dystopian literature, but it’s a refreshing use of them on behalf of a young readership, and now viewership. Given the other fare in our theaters this month, such as the most recent and, I suppose, just as rancid episode of the American Pie series (in which the summum bonum of youth is to use one another as sexual appliances), The Hunger Games is magisterial in its exceptionalism. What could be more heartening than to learn of its success! It was number one at the box office this spring and, what’s more, seems fair on its way to being one of the highest-grossing films ever. There’s a message for filmmakers in this, if only they’d heed it.
This review first appeared in the June 2012 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).