Review: Hunger Games

Big thanks to the lovely Maura who’s off in London Inverness (hopefully winning an Eagle for Jennifer Wilde next month) who not only persuaded me to head out to see the film, but introduced me to the swank G Hotel, a remnant of the Celtic Tiger where some fabulous drinks in classy surroundings  were to be had (mmmm, don’t those look good?).

I haven’t read any of Susan Collins’ Hunger Games series, so I won’t be comparing the film to the books. I have seen Battle Royale just recently so it’s fresh in my mind, although I think the comparison between the two films is a superficial one of the game they share: better comparison might be Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” because this isn’t a film about a faceless and cruel bureaucracy vs. innocent children, it’s about the nature of ritual and spectacle, and how culture makes us complicit in our own subjugation.

The World Socialist Web Site’s review touches a bit more on this aspect (thanks for the link, Steve). While their overall attitude is one of contempt for popular culture (no surprise: most of the negative reactions to the film have been gendered in their response except for a virulent minority who are racist), they note the film’s aim proves surprisingly radical for the mainstream (and generally conservative) Hollywood productions. The same people who have excoriated Hunger Games have often praised the more old-school John Carter (the troublesome princess having been removed from its title).

I haven’t seen that film either: the book is an uncomplicated adventure tale with the triumph of masculinity and empire. The tenor of the praise for the film from a lot of genre folk seems to be that it’s “fun and enjoyable and worth catching on the big screen” (many mainstream critics disagree). Don’t analyze it! It’s just fun: Hunger Games, however, needs to be analyzed and dismissed. Gender has a lot to do with that as with any woman in public (“Look at her shoes! and that dress! And she’s so fat!”). Just as the excoriation of Twilight has a lot more to do with gender than anything else; similar series by men do not receive the same vitriol (cough Game of Thrones cough). Stephen King (who can’t create a believable female character unless she’s a monster or a victim and who actually ends one story by having his heroes saved by a mystic gang bang) gets applauded for sneering at Stephanie Meyer (Pot? Meet kettle).

As a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence and her previous starring role in Winter’s Bone (one of the most overlooked films in recent years), I’m happy to say she is hands down the best thing about the film. Her emotional range is stunning in an actor so young and how delightful to see a woman in an action role who looks like she could actually do the work and not blow away in a strong wind. Not since Geena Davis did yeoman’s work in The Long Kiss Goodnight have I seen an American woman really sell an action role. That said, the direction of the action sequences is dire. The emotional investment of the film comes from Lawrence right at the start.

“Cheese” (the ever-present sneer at the film) apparently means showing emotions: that’s what I’ve got from the snark at the film I’ve seen on Facebook especially. The shallow characterisation of Battle Royale stands in sharp contrast to the deeper world of Hunger Games. You get a sense of the whole world outside the games. Not just Sutherland’s Cheney-esque vicious bastard leader (although I had moments of flashback to Sleeper and the Leader’s nose) but the whole centre-periphery split, where even the religio-political spectacle is showbiz. That’s where the “Lottery” comparisons work best. As abundantly clear from living abroad, the US is not far from that situation now.

It’s the next logical step for the megachurch, already an arm of the ReBiblican party.

Coercion: the coercion women (especially young women) face daily fuels a lot of recognition in this film. The thousand batterings against you daily from strangers demanding you smile to family counseling you against breaking up with your boyfriend/fiancé/husband; women get accustomed to their lives and even their bodies being considered everyone’s property but their own. But they also bear the brunt of balancing life and responsibility. The rare men who handle the bulk of childcare within their family also know the web of reliance that it brings. The luxury of the lone male like John Carter remains a romantic notion that men take for granted and don’t expect to be criticised.

There’s not as much spurting blood as in Battle Royale but every death is memorable, every death counts. The town and country split that the socialists allude to comes through most vividly in the hateful but intimidating rich kids from the capital district. The reaction unleashed by Rue’s fate within the story has immediate resonance for anyone who watched the riots in London unfold and spread across the country. It’s what fuels the Occupy movement as well. The triumph of Hunger Games isn’t the private success of individuals like Battle Royale, it’s the success of cooperation.

The importance of knowing your battle dress, often dismissed as mere ‘girly’ fashion sense, shows how savvy Katniss quickly becomes. She has the weight of responsibility on her shoulders — a weight of which she is ever conscious — unlike the rest of the competitors.  While Peta spouts noble-sounding pronouncements, she remains conscious of how much depends on her, and while overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her situation at times — by the fate of Rue in particular because of its reminders of home — Katniss digs in for endurance and survives. I’m sure the series will, too.