As a fan of all things “saga,” of course, I read The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Founded on the premise of a dystopian society set in the future, the series follows Katniss Everdeen who volunteers in the annual tournament that selects children from each area to fight to the death. These “games” are televised to remind all of the citizens of Panem what can happen when a nation embarks on civil war and the resulting chaos. Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who exudes both courage and desperation, steps in to fight in place of her little sister, Prim. The rest of the film follows her heroic quest to win the hunger games for the sake of her family.
The film by Gary Ross brings to life what Collins has put to page. Shot in North Carolina, District 12 appears as a war-torn depression era slum. The shaky camera employed by Ross gives the feeling of instability – districts on the edge of revolt. Children shuffle in a single file line towards the reaping (name drawing) eerily reminiscent of concentration camp lines.
Opposite we have the Capital, where the powerful and elite live and prosper from the work of the districts. Every detail from Collins’ book is accounted for at the Capital from the other-worldly makeup to the futuristic furniture and opulent foodin the hotel. The establishing shot of the Capital is right out of Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927 – a film that also explores the divide between classes). The opening ceremonies take place in a monolithic Roman colosseum and the metaphor continues as tributes ride in on chariots; they are gladiators readying for battle.
Clearly, the film centers on the theme of violence. Not only do children fight children, but districts fight against the power of the Capital. The most striking image of the film is the District 11 revolt after their tribute fighter, a young girl named Rue (Amandla Stenberg), dies. An image, not unlike photos from the 1960s race riots, erupts as the district people attack the peacekeepers who work to keep the districts in line. Water hoses are aimed into the indignant crowd, freshly angered with pain and grief after watching Rue die on screen. Unfortunately, the quick paced camera movements do not linger long enough to capture the full impact of Rue’s death. Rather the story quickly moves back to the arena. The film is afraid to linger on an uncomfortable subject for too long.
In the arena, fast paced editing and a non-diegetic soundtrack mitigate the violence of children fighting to the death. The first killing scene in the games takes place at the cornucopia and sets the stage for the treatment of violence among children. The camera glances the quick and swift kills. A symphonic score covers the sounds of what should be children crying out in pain, or perhaps for mercy. The final scene faces violence a bit more directly as the last three tributes fight atop a metallic structure that looks like a Frank Gehry design. Katniss’ final kill is one out of mercy as her opponent is attacked by genetically altered dogs. She saves Peeta, secures the win, and avoids murder when she can.
The lack of long takes and diegetic sounds allow us as viewers to enjoy the film and feel decent about watching children fight to the death. The lack of graphic images not only lets in the 13-year-old fan base, but also allows us to feel okay with what we’ve seen on screen. Initially drawn in by extreme close ups, we come to know the characters well and form a close connection with Katniss. This connection also allows us to watch the spectacle and take pleasure in it; we are suffering with Katniss and Peeta. The film could have taken a grittier look at violence as entertainment, thematically, but I’m sure opening weekend wouldn’t have been as big a success.
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