By taking its subject matter seriously, the movie offers smart political commentary.
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.
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.
Once Katniss and her competitors enter the Arena, essentially a big forest, Ross provides constant reminders of the artificiality of the set-up. The bucolic natural setting is occasionally pierced by piped-in announcements from the Games' designers, who manipulate the action from a high-tech perch. Frequent cuts from the tributes whittling spears and roasting rodents to technicians using touchscreens to launch lethal fireballs and mutant attack dogs at them emphasize who's really to blame for the savagery on display.
MORE ON THE HUNGER GAMES
This is a clever way to soften the most disturbing aspect of The Hunger Games: its central plot point of children tearing one another's guts out. Much has been written about Lionsgate's navigation of this minefield during marketing and rating, but the on-screen violence turns out to be relatively tame. The death of the youngest contestant is nearly bloodless, despite the spear lodged in her abdomen. The most graphic scene of the book, in which rabid dogs eat a boy alive, is only glimpsed from a distance.
The murderers, then, come off as mere pawns in the Games, and even their chief manipulator, head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), can't be blamed—he's punished for cutting them too much slack. President Snow, Donald Sutherland's smugly detached autocrat, ostensibly calls the shots, but his involvement is too opaque to feel especially threatening. The real culprit, you get the sense, is the system, in which a small minority—1 percent, let's say?—ostentatiously oppresses a vast majority. Sound familiar?
In Katniss, The Hunger Games offers the populist hero the Occupy movement wasn't able to deliver. Lawrence's take on the now-iconic character is sullen but gentle, and quick to ignite. Despite the apparent love triangle—in which the only convincing romantic energy radiates from Liam Hemsworth, who receives regrettably little screen time as Katniss's hunky childhood friend—Katniss's awakening isn't sexual. It's political.
When she strews flowers over a fallen friend's corpse (a scene that would have been more effective at half the length), she seems, for the first time, alert to the systemic perversity of her situation. She gives a coded salute to viewers, her first act of rebellion. It works: Laborers in the dead tribute's district, most of whom are black, revolt against the Capitol's rule. One protestor is hosed against a wall, an allusion to the Birmingham campaign that may well slip past Katniss's teenage fans. But whether or not they recognize its specific references, The Hunger Games' devotees clearly get the story's urgency, its now-ness.
Harry Potter, like Lord of the Rings and plenty of other fantasy classics, tells a timeless story of good and evil. The plot darkens and characters occasionally linger in a gray area, but ultimately there is a right and there is a wrong. The Hunger Games isn't concerned with morality in a vacuum. It's concerned with justice, which is organized society giving morality its best shot. That deserves a serious movie.