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The Hunger Games offers food for thought, but some antacid is needed to ease the digestion.

Social (Media) Commentary

Like the tween-centric, angst-ridden romance of the Twilight saga, The Hunger Games is based on a series of books written for young adults. Like Twilight, the books have crossed over to mainstream appeal, with upwardly mobile urbanites caught reading Suzanne Collins’ story of teen-on-teen violence while riding Denver’s mass transit system.

Effie (left) with Katniss, the chosen one
Effie (left) with Katniss, the chosen one

But The Hunger Games’ audience has extended beyond tweenage girls and their lusty moms. It certainly boasts more interesting material to ponder than Twilight, but there’s also some pretty disturbing stuff. How much appeal it holds depends on how one interprets the story.

On the surface it’s a coming-of-age action fantasy set in a distressing, dystopian world. But it’s also a commentary on today’s world, one in which violence and popularity contests carry on a torrid affair in the public square. It’s pretty heavy stuff for a trilogy of books written for 12 year olds.

The world of The Hunger Games is set in the near- or not-so-near future. The United States of America is no more. All sorts of apocalyptic stuff happened that was followed by a revolt against the government, which in turn led to the squashing of the general populace and the rise of the Panem nation.

As penance for the revolt, citizens are subjected to a sacrificial event every year, one that the government mandates be treated as a celebration. It’s a sacrifice in which each of the country’s 12 districts offer up, by lottery, one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18. Those less fortunate can collect the equivalent of food stamps, but at a healthy price. Tapping into the system yields additional entries into the lottery, a cumulative collection of entries that makes the most desperate, by odds, the most likely to compete in a contest to the death.

It’s kind of like Thunderdome, but on a much bigger scale; 24 kids enter, one leaves.

Occupy Your District

After a lengthy, tedious setup that can try the patience of the uninitiated, the action begins and some disturbing notions set in. The 24 competitors enter the enormous, enclosed environs of The Hunger Games and their first act of competition is to raid a weapons depot in order to get gear for self-preservation.

Bloodshed ensues immediately; the imagery, while not full-on graphic, is disturbing enough. For some, Columbine is still rattling around in the back of the head and those scenes do more to recall a horrible scene of real reality than a not-so-innocent duel-to-the-death of a reality game. Within the first 8 hours of the game, 13 of the 24 are dead.

The ceremonial machinations of the event, now in its 74th year, call to mind the grating, crowd-sourced approval process of American Idol, uncomfortably mated with Survivor. The competitors are interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, Captain America: The First Avenger), a blue-haired (by fashion, not age) emcee of typically vapid airs. The live studio audience cheers, sighs, and applauds Caesar’s subjects. The contestants are also pressganged into a talent display in front of distracted, unconcerned ivory tower types. It’s all part of a bid to garner bigger, better TV ratings and thereby bump up the sponsorships. Having more sponsors means having more money, which in turn funds more external assistance, such as drop shipments of medical supplies.

But what happens when the youngest member of the 24, a small 12-year-old girl, is killed? Well, some people in the general populace, watching on jumbotrons located throughout the districts, are set off by her death and a mini-riot is stoked and quickly quelled.

Heck, people. That’s part of the game; 24 enter, one leaves. Her demise was foretold before the games even began.

At first blush, it seems to be misplaced outrage – outrage against the contestant who killed the girl. But the rage isn’t against the girl’s death per se; it’s against the machinery that put such an innocent life in such shameful peril to begin with. It’s the rage of a powerless people trying to exert some modicum of influence, while also being transfixed by the mess they’re experiencing.

Rage Against the Machine

Caesar. Octavia. Flavius. Claudius.

Those are the names of the elite class, the ones running the show. The Roman influence is hardly subtle; it extends to the pompous ceremony surrounding the gladiatorial combat of the games.

The competitors have less regal names; they have names like Rue, Glimmer, Clove, Cato, and Katniss.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men: First Class) is the strong, loyal, dedicated, wholesome heroine of Collins’ Games trilogy. She’s a great character, perhaps a worthwhile role model for tweenage girls. She’s a young woman who takes a stand and knows right from wrong.

Lawrence is good enough in the role and she’s surrounded by some interesting casting choices, including Woody Harrelson (Rampart) as Haymitch Abernathy, a rare District 12 Hunger Games victor from many years back. Elizabeth Banks (The Next Three Days) is almost unrecognizable as Effie Trinket, a pimped-out political puppet. And there’s rocker Lenny Kravitz, providing a decent follow-up to his surprisingly good performance in Precious.

Those are the faces that keep the movie working as well as it does, but they’ve got their hands full. Tom Stern, whose cinematography was spectacular in Paris 36, finds his work here sacrificed to some shoddy, not-so-special effects. Given its relatively modest budget of somewhere around $80 million - $100 million, the movie oftentimes feels like it’s straining to be big while working with subpar resources.

While the look of this future world isn’t all that imaginative, the action doesn’t fare much better. Aside from a couple good jolts, most of the action feels a little stilted. Perhaps that lack of excitement is a reflection of director Gary Ross’ comfort level with more benign subjects, such as Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, and Big.

Rise Above

Before the games begin, one of Katniss’ friends, Gale (Liam Hemsworth, The Last Song), comments that If no one watched the games, the government wouldn’t have a show. As it stands, though, it’s a national obsession, one with blurred lines between personal choice and mandate.

That whole concept is interesting, particularly in this day and age when a former Australian super model was recently busted for trafficking meth-amphetamines. Her life’s aspiration? To be in a reality TV show. It’s a sad state of affairs when so many people are ready to give it all up in order to succumb to the damnation of public approval. So many people are willing to enter survival contests, forge alliances, then disband them when the end goal is known by all: only one can win. It’s a society in which using other people for personal gain is viewed as a keen, enviable skill set.

Throw in the pure stage craft and artifice of politicians and media outlets manipulating audiences and managing subjects (human and otherwise), and there’s a world ripe for a critical assault. That’s what The Hunger Games ostensibly wants to do, but after watching the movie there’s a greater sense of depression than hope.

Even as the popularity of the Katniss Everdeen saga has taken the book world by storm (with some 11 million copies sold in the U.S. alone), people are still tuning in and voting for the next pop star they’ll in turn seek to tear down; other people’s train wrecks are perpetually in fashion. Taken as a cautionary tale, it’s debatable if anybody’s really learning anything from The Hunger Games. But archery is, apparently, also soaring in popularity.

It’ll be interesting to see where all those arrows land.

“May the odds be ever in your favor.”

That’s the refrain of the Hunger Games. Leaving the verdict to a coin toss, this one lands on its third side.