The film's visuals borrowed from Frank Gehry, Nazi architecture, Depression-era photography, and everyday office furniture, but its vision of the future could have been more radical.
After two weekends of The Hunger Games' box-office domination, it may seem as if every last thing about the film has been said. But we noticed an omission. While everyone was gossiping about Jennifer Lawrence's weight, they forgot to consider her arrows, her windbreaker, and the Cornucopia they came from. As design critics, we were struck by the film's architecture, industrial design, and fashion—lethal and otherwise. The following dialogue ensued.
Be warned: spoilers ahead.
Alexandra Lange: I found the perfect quote for any discussion of design in Hunger Games. Haymitch to Katniss: "Look at you, you just killed a placemat."
Because the tension in The Hunger Games is between the pretty surfaces and underlying brutality—the fact that it requires annual killing to keep the placemats looking the way they do. The book and the film's cinematography do a very good job at cueing us to whether we are in the realm of placemats or killing. But I thought the movie's visual design, while interesting, could have done a better job at differentiating the two.
Angela Riechers: Agreed. The props, sets, and costumes are a giant mash-up of visual cues taken from eras when the socioeconomic disparity between classes was so extreme as to be dangerous. The look is sort of cherry picked from influences ranging from the French Revolution to the Third Reich to Alexander McQueen. A more unified or coherent vision, one that took the influences and used them to create something unique, might have served the story better.
AL: I think so. The opening scenes in District 12 are atmospheric and period precise. The bleached-out blue palette, the wooden shacks, the muddy roads—you know you are in the 1930s of the Farm Services Administration photographers. There were a couple of moments, like the line of cabins going down into the hollow, or the two scrawny kids looking out of a hole in the wall, that I could almost swear were direct imitations of a photograph. I found out after I saw the movie that those scenes were filmed in Henry River, North Carolina, an abandoned mill town from the 1920s. In District 12, it is coal. In North Carolina, it was yarn.
AR: The set for the Reaping was in fact an old cotton gin in Shelby, North Carolina, where we get the first visual clue hinting at the hideousness to come. The softly draped, drab cotton clothing (defenseless, helpless, defeated) worn by the District 12 kids contrasts very sharply with the architectural, brightly colored clothing (aggression, assault, dominance) worn by Effie Trinket. Her clothes are cruel. Like armor that uses harsh color and shape to intimidate.
AL: Effie's almost overmatched by the unpaved road and the steps! But she's the one who gets to use just about the only shiny object we see: that very streamlined stainless-steel microphone, a hint of design to come on the train.
One thing that bothered me about the Reaping in the film was the fishbowls of paper slips with the children's names. In the movie, but not in the book, we've just seen the Peacekeepers "check off" the attendees by reading their bloody fingerprints with a high-tech gadget. The filmmakers break the consistency of anachronistic 1930s technology, and then the fishbowls make no sense. Why wouldn't the Capitol build, and bring, a better randomizer?
AR: That's something that troubled me throughout the movie: the use of retro to show us a warped society of the future. It's as if the filmmakers didn't have the courage to create a new vocabulary for what such a future might really look like, and fell back on things we already recognize to telegraph the disparate worlds of have and have-not.
Production designer Philip Messina has said he wanted to create a "retro-futuristic" look, throwing Depression-era America into the distant future and adding high technology. What if the District dwellers were shown with old, clunky, barely functional devices? The kind Capitol citizens upgraded from years ago?
AL: At the Hob (which looked a heck of a lot like the Brooklyn Flea) we saw metal radios changing hands, but no boomboxes. But then Katniss's mother and sister watch the Games on an invisible projection TV on their shack wall. The film's social commentary would have been much stronger if it was clear that the Capitol was purposely holding the Districts back in technology as well as food. If it is still the Depression in District 12, as we move toward the Capitol we should move toward the present, or even past it.
Instead, the timeline was all mixed up. The Capitol train seemed lifted straight from industrial design legend Henry Dreyfuss's 1930s Mercury trains: stainless steel, blue velvet, crystal, glass, placemats! The metal arrow motifs behind President Snow as he greets the Tributes are from the same era, and a popular Art Deco detail.
AR: The Dreyfuss train, at the time, was the epitome of futuristic progress, a real re-envisioning of the world of tomorrow. I think the audience is meant to feel Katniss's sense of awe as she steps inside and is surrounded by the luxurious things she's seeing for the first time in her life. Instead I was reminded of the restaurant Le Train Bleu, in Bloomingdales, which mimics the look of an 1870s French dining car.
AL: Which was probably designed in the 1950s! All those tiered platters of cakes definitely had a French feel, like Effie's hair. When we finally reach the Capitol, my first thought was that it also looked like a giant fruit basket. All the brightly colored people were shown in tiers, like a pyramid of berries, peaches, and plums.
AR: There was a whole lot of Marie Antoinette going on with the food and the hairstyles, for sure—pointing out, in a none-too-subtle way, what kind of decadent, debauched society we're looking at. But I liked the way the president was so powerful he could wear simple, austere suits ... as he tends his luxurious garden.
AL: Those roses seemed like the only growing things in the Capitol.
The overall look of the Capitol was 1930s neoclassicism, an architectural style used by the Nazis and based on Roman precedents. Fascist architecture seems too easy and obvious an equivalence for Panem's totalitarian regime. I thought Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins was trying to make a trenchant point about what we all like to watch now. Making the Capitol a contemporary skyscraper city, like a forest of Far East towers, would have made a much more pointed contrast with the Appalachian opening. What about the top of Moshe Safdie's Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, with its mile-high infinity pool, as the setting for Katniss and Peeta's pre-Games talk? How could you get more decadent than that?
AR: Maybe oppressive architecture in movies has to be Fascist, in the same way that aliens need to be either robotic, humanoid, or insect-like—otherwise we don't immediately recognize and fear what we're seeing. The tributes' apartment was like an outdated hotel room that was trying too hard to be hip but not quite succeeding; the green chairs were ridiculous in the same way as Effie's shoes, hats, and makeup.
AL: Those green chairs were hideous, and I assumed they were from the 1980s. But no! Phillips seatbelt chairs from High Point, North Carolina.
It was really only the Cornucopia that made you sit up and take notice, architecturally. The Gamemakers push themselves forward, while the rest of their culture remains the same.
AR: I thought I saw Frank Gehry in that Cornucopia: a harsh jumble of metal planes perched in a grassy field. Many of the interiors in Capitol City felt like Philippe Starck way back in the Royalton Hotel era: dark gleaming wood, dangerous-looking brushed metal door handles.
AL: For the Cornucopia, I first thought Gehry, then Greg Lynn. It's a little too hard-edge and folded-plane for Gehry. Contemporary architectural references show up in only a few places, like Zaha Hadid-esque ramps at the skylit Capitol train station. But the production designer made the ramps symmetrical to fit the overall neoclassicism, which Zaha would never do. Another element from today: Seneca Crane's circular control room is outfitted with white Herman Miller Sayl chairs, designed by Yves Behar. It was odd to see affordable office furniture there, though I suppose it was just another day at work for them.
AR: The Cornucopia also looked like a very large rat trap, and since it often functioned as a way to lure the tributes to their deaths, that seemed fitting both structurally and thematically: These kids are just vermin to those who live in the Capitol.
AL: The only other design note I have from the arena was the glass-tipped arrows Katniss picked up. The other weapons and windbreakers looked like they could have come from REI. It would have been more realistic if she'd had trouble using these arrows at first, or taken a moment to notice the glittering ends. You would think her homemade feathered arrows would shoot differently.
AR: There are many extremely hi-tech bows for hunters already on the market, with crazy futuristic designs. I was surprised not to see more of this kind of stuff. It would have been interesting to see that Darwinian angle come into play: Can Katniss and the others adapt quickly enough to the new equipment to survive? I also wish there'd been tech-geeky stuff for the tributes to use, for instance a laptop that would 3-D print advanced weaponry—just as the people in the control room could create scary dogs on a moment's notice. The weapons for combat were almost medieval.
AL: And then they've won, and they have to act like virginal sweethearts rather than killers. We were both disappointed by Katniss's flaming costumes, but the worst prom-like fashion offender is the puffy, girly, yellow dress Katniss wears for her post-victory Caesar Flickerman interview. But here it makes a lot of plot sense. This sweet girl can't bring down our government, can she?
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AR: Even in victory the tributes were never dressed in the style of the Capitol. The Capitol was done with them. The winner's clothes didn't shout,"You've proven yourselves worthy to become one of us!" but rather looked like an uneasy fashion no-man's-land: dressy and sparkly but still kind of tacky. It reminded me of the terrible Philip Treacy hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William: Princess Beatrice is not considered a top shelf royal and in the eyes of the world, the hat just reinforced her lowly status. The media reaction was swift and vicious.
AL: As they take the train back home, they are back in limp, washed-out clothes. Was it just me, or is there a moment when the color drains out of Peeta and Katniss while they are talking at the window, indicating they are back in District 12?
What designs do you look forward to seeing in the next film? Me, the Victor's Village of mostly empty houses. If they don't film it on a never-occupied cul-de-sac near Charlotte they are missing another opportunity for contemporary design commentary.
AR: I want it to evolve! Show me the weapons, clothes, industrial design, and architecture of the future. There's a ready-made audience eager for the next Hunger Games already, one that may be receptive to designs that speak to the future without leaning on the past so much.
I haven't read the books so I don't know what really happens, but I'd love to see what a decayed Capitol would look like; if there was so much social upheaval that the wealth and privilege disappeared and the citizens turned on each other. What adjustments would be necessary?
AL: I've read the books, so I'll say no more.