When Survivor launched in 2001, I don't think Jamie understood my revulsion to the concept.* But I'd grown up watching Arnie's 1987 blockbuster, The Running Man, based on a Steven King short story, and had internalized a bit of what the somewhat clunky (yet awesome) story had to say about us.
The idea of "bread and circuses" isn't anything new, and clearly The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins (no I did not read the books) was aware of this as she penned her book, naming her nation "Panem". And, Signal Corps, do not take offense when I say I'm not sure that The Hunger Games (2012) brings anything new to the screen. I don't think originality is where the film succeeds (and it does succeed), but in its excellent and unflinching execution (pun not intended) as well as the performances of young and mostly unknown talent.
In many ways, the movie carries the same story as everything from Gladiator to bits of John Carter, but in many ways it reminded me most of the unnoticed, entirely forgotten American Dreamz (2006). American Dreamz played on the insane popularity of American Idol, a flailing leadership, the ties between celebrity and leadership and the machinations behind legitimate government, popularity and the madness of crowds and those who stand to benefit from managing all of it.
Where The Hunger Games succeeds is where American Dreamz perhaps never had a chance. American Dreamz had the temerity to not bury itself in allegory and an adventure story that would shield it from scraping across the sensitive and exposed nerves of the audience with its implications. The Hunger Games uses just enough of the trappings of the familiar of "reality" programming, the us vs. them that comes with gaps in wealth and those who are able to use sleight of hand to manage the media/ games to keep the public of all stripes amused and bring together a unity through entertainment at the awful expense of those playing the games.
Since Shelley put the spark of life back into shambling dead flesh, what science and speculative fiction has always done best is raise questions via allegory that seem to be too difficult for us to grapple with lest we break down into pedantic shouting matches. Its the undangerous simulation and exploration of how we might really feel or what we might really think about certain ideas, perhaps at their core, without being shouted down by those who have something to lose. Does the film and book suggest something about the nature of us, right now? Or perhaps something universal just using the trappings of our current trends, technologies, tastes?
We're not so far away from the days when arenas were built for bloodsport instead of football games, and its hard to ignore the numbers cheering for MMA, boxing, even the theater of Pro Wrestling, let alone our taste for violence in film and television. We love to pick sides, to watch competitors, pick our heroes and villains in everything from baseball to fashion design and cooking. We treat politics no differently, identifying our heroes and villains (and readily believe fictions about both).
And at the end of the day, there are always massively more losers in this game than winners.
The movie makes no bones about the ugly separation of wealth from poverty within the supposedly same nation, of the hedonistic pampering those at the top give themselves and with how the ease of life and excess has led to obsessions with fashion, manners and entertainments unthinkable to those who are wondering where their next meal will come from. And, of course, the alien confusion of those experiencing the hedonism for the first time, as well as the notions of those who've always lived it who do not see the relationship between the privilege and the luxury of fashion and manners. And beside the doors and walking behind our foppish elite we see the omnipresent riot-geared law enforcement, of course.
The Hunger Games are as much about the ridiculous trappings that match the expectations of glamour on the part of upper echelon want to see from their stars as the violence of the Arena, and so the poor country mice are dressed and primped like dolls all on their way to slaughter, an interesting echo of watching stylists have their way with contestants on our own "reality" shows.
I'll be curious to see if either Fox or MSNBC decide that, much like in the wake of The Dark Knight, that their side is the one being represented by our protagonist. When that happens, I always think the take-away is "what you mean is that we actually agree. Its not our goals which are different, its the ways in which we think we need to get there". And in a way, that's heartening.
As I mentioned, the cast is excellent. The mostly unknown Jennifer Lawrence (already twice the actor of what's-her-name from the Twilight films) of Winter's Bone fame** never gives in to teenage dithering or exasperation at her situation. The adulthood foisted upon her by circumstance is well conveyed in what could have been another Mary Sue role. Whether taking cues from Lawrence or director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), the rest of the cast also falls into line, and even when coming off as a punk gang, its with youthful arrogance and swagger that feels no less deadly and high stakes. As a director, Ross manages to express the concepts indirectly, through context and clues, adhering to the power of showing rather than telling.
I'd argue that in the past ten years sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction haven't just opened up to women, that they've become majority stakeholders in creating tentpole franchises such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and supporting the more popular superhero franchises such as Spider-Man and Iron Man. As a guy who grew up not blinking at characters with names like Chin Manstrong in his science fiction, I admit that its taking some getting used to buying characters with names that sound like they should have all the "i's" dotted with hearts, like "Katniss".
I would also note that the movie never really asks Katniss to get all that messy. Even her weapon of choice, a bow and arrow, should keep her from ever getting blood-splattered. I bring it up, because this is usually one of those places critics like to go, and while Katniss is most certainly bodily threatened from close quarters, a bit of deus ex machina keeps her from ever having to make a decision about getting stabby. Perhaps this is discussed in more detail in the book, or pops up a bit more by book 3, but in this movie, it feels a bit like a cheat to keep the protagonist's hands conveniently clean in a movie that doesn't give anyone else that option.
The movie is not unflawed, it has its weaknesses. But there's also far, far worse ways to spend a couple of hours at the theater.
*sorry, Survivor fans
**no, I never saw Winter's Bone