By Casey Wilson
Warning: Film Spoilers Abound!
Early in The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross shows us the bleak world of District 12. It’s full of blues and grays and faded yellows, an area that has seen better days. The camera passes by a window, and we see a woman staring out the window, eyes bleak, hand on her cheek. The resemblance to Dorothea Lange’s famous Great Depression photograph is impossible to ignore.
Ross calls upon our cultural memory in that moment. I’ve heard complaints that District 12 doesn’t look as starved as it should, and perhaps that’s true. But for me, that one tired face communicates far more about what life is like in District 12 than any amount of emaciated actors could. Our past is our future, the film seems to say.
And then, suddenly, Katniss breaches the fence and leaves her district. The world outside is lush and green, full of life that’s unaware of just how hard life can be. But it’s only a brief respite, and the threat of the Reaping hangs over everything Katniss does – and over us. Her conversation with Gale condemns the theater full of people watching the film, just as it does every character who obeys the Capitol’s edict and watches The Hunger Games. “It’s sick,” Gale says, in reference to the idea of people cheering for their favorites in the Games. It is, but we aren’t supposed to know that yet.
Silence is a powerful weapon, and it comes to bear in the Reaping. There’s no excited or nervous chatter from District 12’s citizens. Their silence is the only condemnation they are allowed. The lone sound comes from the Capitol, brought by Effie Trinket and a film that tells the district just how kind the Capitol is for creating the Games in the first place. Effie stands at the front of the crowd, mouthing the words like a prayer. She is grotesque, disturbing, her shock of pink unnatural in a world of gray. Even her voice is out of place. The crowd might be silent, but her accent still jars us. And then she calls the wrong name, and the silence is broken by the screams of a distraught sister who does the unthinkable: she volunteers for The Hunger Games.
From there, the film takes us along with Katniss-the-volunteer as she learns just what it is she has done and what she must yet do to survive. We move quickly from mahogany-tabled trains to surgical-style prep rooms to television interviews and beyond. The Games might not officially start until late in the film, with that horrifying countdown, but they really began back at the reaping. Survival is not just about starvation, or the guy with the sword. It’s about the alliances forged and connections made, even if it’s with the narcissistic Caesar Flickerman.
As both a film and an adaptation, The Hunger Games succeeds. It is gorgeously acted – Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna are the standouts – and gives the subtleties of the story room to breathe. (Consider the intimacy behind Gale’s actions at the Reaping, or the entirely unstated connection between Prim and Rue.) It also captures some of the ambiguity of Suzanne Collins’s novel, presenting a citizenry beholden to a leader who doesn’t rule by fear, but by hope. And although the films, much like the book trilogy, will undoubtedly grow more political as it goes on, this first installment shines the most when it lets the seeds of rebellion begin to grow: the three-fingered salute at the Reaping, the riot in District 11.
The Hunger Games is not a masterpiece. But it is an immensely well-made and enjoyable film that actively works to ask important questions about our relationships to our media, our government, and each other. That it captures even a portion of the complexity of its source material is just a bonus.
Now where do I get in line for Catching Fire?
Casey is a PhD student who promises to stop talking about The Hunger Games for a while. Maybe.