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.