'The Hunger Games' Crosses Child Warfare With Class Warfare

By taking its subject matter seriously, the movie offers smart political commentary.

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Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games on September 14, 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Since then, reaction to the two events has seemed equivalent in scale—The Hunger Games swept through middle and high schools across America, building terrifying box-office momentum before this week's movie release, while the financial crash ignited a populist fire Americans didn't realize they could still muster.

In Katniss, 'The Hunger Games' offers the populist hero the Occupy movement wasn't able to deliver.

Is it ridiculous to compare the two? Probably. But the film is earnestly, self-consciously political, so why not? Shrugging aside Twilight and Harry Potter comparisons, a Taylor Swift-heavy soundtrack, and an unseemly amount of internet hype, let's try taking this movie seriously.

It certainly takes itself seriously. Even Woody Harrelson's boozy sage, one of the few characters not weighed down by imminent death, is more of a depressing drunk than an entertaining one. Only Elizabeth Banks seems to be having fun, reveling in her role as an aggressively fuchsia harpy of a chaperone. The movie occasionally drags, thanks to its play-by-play loyalty to Collins's book and a resulting run time of more than two hours and 20 minutes. But this very sincerity is, in another sense, its greatest strength. By treating his underage characters—and their young fans—with respect, director Gary Ross has created a guaranteed teen box-office phenomenon that also happens to be an ambitious, timely political parable.

The Hunger Games is set in Panem, a dystopian, post-global-warming, possibly post-nuclear-apocalypse North America. The ruling class resides in the lavish, futuristic Capitol while relying on the 12 outlying Districts for what's left of the Earth's natural resources. To keep the Districts under control, the Capitol employs a regime of deprivation and propaganda, the keystone of which is the Hunger Games. Every year, each district must offer two children as "tributes" for the Games, in which they're thrown into a survival setting and must fight each other to the death on live TV. It is, quite literally, Survivor.

Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers for the Games in place of her younger sister, who's first selected. One point for martyrdom! She surprises Game-viewers with her killer archery skills. Two points for being a badass! She shocks the Capitol with her humanity during the Games, forging friendships with her competitors and protesting the brutality of the situation. Three points for sparking a revolution!

Much of this storyline recalls the generic sci-fi arc, but the reality-TV-gone-haywire framing makes it feel specific to right now. Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman is everything the Ryan Seacrests and Carson Dalys of the world wish they could be: His glittery cobalt suit and egomaniacal cackle seem the inevitable endpoint of the evolution of today's reality host. He plays up now-familiar tropes, drawing out each contestant in interviews, narrating moving stories of their lives back home, and seemingly siding with each one—a structure no different than that of American Idol or The Voice, really, except that only one contestant will survive.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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