Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
The flamboyant show-host Caesar Flickerman has his alive-and-well, star-crossed lovers — Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark — on stage together for their first interview since surviving the Hunger Games. Caesar asks the right questions — the ones we’re just dying to know. The bright lights are shining, the cameras are rolling, and we — uh, I mean the Capitol studio audience — look on with great anticipation. Can you believe it? They both survived the Games! It’s, like, the most amazing love story. Do you think their kisses in the cave were just for show? They’re sitting really close together on the love seat. Peeta reiterates his long-time love for Katniss. Then, Caesar asks what was going through Katniss’s mind when Peeta was near death. She responds, “I don’t know, I just… couldn’t bear the thought of… being without him.”
(Cheers, joyful sighs, romantic glee, and mild euphoria spread throughout the audience. Can you guess which one?)
The post-games interview scene, which was brilliant in a way, came off almost exactly like an “After the Final Rose” episode from The Bachelor. Except, instead of two young, good-looking “in love” contestants publicly inaugurating their relationship with spurned lovers in their wake, 22 dead adolescents didn’t quite make it to Caesar’s couch. And, because of the nearly identical, unified response between my screening’s audience and the Capitol audience, it’s the moment from my viewing of The Hunger Games that I keep returning to reflectively. Initially, I took it as a sign of satiric brilliance: the young adults that the novel and film are geared toward had made Suzanne Collins’ point for her. Of course, not everyone reacted in Capitol-like fashion in these moments, and a film is not always responsible for wayward reaction. But whether or not the film somehow encourages inhumane entertainment through an embellished love triangle that overshadows any subtext having to do with war violence, dystopian regimes, or the entrapments of “amusing ourselves to death” is still a question for me.
Thus, my response to The Hunger Games is yet a mix of positive, negative, and undecided — and, in terms of the film’s timeline, in that order. At best, it’s the franchised young adult fiction adaptation that we desperately needed to help erase Twilight from memory. At worst, The Hunger Games — in its attempt to satirize lust for spectacle in a dystopian setting — delivers more on spectacle than effective satire. Yet, for the mature reader, much of Collins’s novel is interesting enough, and the same is true of Gary Ross’ mostly-faithful adaptation. On the whole, the film’s first act imagines the novel well, achieving just the right tonal feel of drab deprivation in District 12, the dread of the Reaping, and the futuristic, lavish oddity that is the pre-Games preparation at the Capitol.
From the time Katniss volunteers to replace her young sister in the Games to the moment when she, shaking, is raised up into the Arena in the final countdown, Ross’s depiction of the material is at its most effective. This is a credit to the casting, which is superb, particularly for some of the supporting roles. Woody Harrelson nearly steals the show as Haymitch, the sometimes-despised, sometimes-loveable drunkard who lends his expertise when he’s aware enough to be available. Likewise, Stanley Tucci is devilishly good as Caesar, the Capitol’s reality television host who has the flamboyance to manipulate audiences and ignite spectacle.
In some ways, the film naturally elevates the source material; we’re treated to perspectives that, in the book, are overly-reliant on Katniss’s limited imagination and description. Especially intriguing is the vantage we get outside of the Games. For instance, we catch a brief glimpse of Haymitch persuading some potential sponsors to support Katniss while she is fighting to stay alive in the Arena. And one of my favorite additions to the film adaptation is its use of “announcers” for the Games, which functions as a clever explanation device for certain elements of the fictional world that are difficult to translate to film. Which is all to say: we get a better sense of the production going on during the Games. Rather than having Katniss explain her sense of the calculated entertainment based on her experience of watching the Games through the years, the film depicts the first-hand perspective of it, reinforcing the Games qua “reality” television.
However, Ross’s film begins to falter right about the time Katniss discovers camouflaged Peeta. From here to the cave of the love triangle, we’re treated to a barrage of unintentionally comedic moments. To be sure, the novel’s depiction of the cave isn’t exactly cheese-free, but the film overplays the love triangle in comparison to the book. Having not read the sequels, I can’t say if this was groundwork being laid, but I’m guessing it’s the case that the love triangle becomes central.
The film’s reality television element governs its effectiveness in avoiding implication in kids-killing-kids as entertainment, and I fear it doesn’t go far enough. We needed a little less of Katniss’s brave arrow slinging and fewer cutaway shots of Gale’s heartbreak — heck, a little less easy emotion-conjuring by picking on the 12-year-olds — and more shots, for instance, of an audience cheering at the sight of kills. More of this emphasis might have been a more effective foil to the temptation to enjoy Caesar’s interview as much as the Capitol’s live audience.
Unless, of course, the more pronounced point is the Twilight-style love triangle. In which case, all of that other stuff about war violence, reality television, and dystopian regimes seems too secondary, and not quite weighty enough. I love the emphasis in the book and film that a martyr is the greatest threat to the whole regime. President Snow doesn’t want a martyr. He needs a reality TV star who inspires just enough hope in the working class to keep them subdued and working, but not enough hope that they rise up. I can’t help but wonder if Games has its enthusiasts due to a deep-seated preference for the celebrity over the martyr.