Thursday, May 30, 2024

What’s the deal with The Hunger Games?

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Recently, Fandomentals author Julia took on the task of watching the movies (and shows) that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer, because she’s a precious noob who somehow hid from The Avengers. These posts have been the highlight of my week, and as a result, I wanted to undertake a similar project. For some reason, I escaped the cultural phenomenon that is The Hunger Games. I believe I watched half of the first movie at one point, and read about 4 pages of the book. There’s no real reason I panned on it, but since I am a nerd who engages with various fandoms, it is something that comes up a lot in discussions.

So I’m giving it another chance. My plan is to watch the four movies and provide my reviews. If I feel so compelled afterwards, I may branch into the books, or I may write further metas. But for now, we start with the 2012 film, The Hunger Games, which I watched on Friday, hot toddy in hand.

Aaaand, I’m already completely nervous to share my thoughts. I know how well-loved this franchise is, but… I just didn’t like it as much as I felt I “should.” Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t really dislike it either. However, I think there were major, major issues with this movie’s presentation, and some of the choices made.

For one, the world-building was a bit too glossed over. It was weird, because for the first hour (or however long before the game actually begins), you could tell that they were trying to cram in as much establishing information as they could. But it simply wasn’t enough. For instance, this is a dystopian fiction, right? But yet, aside from the existence of the hunger games, which is described in the opening text as being the way to remind the districts not to rebel again, we don’t really get a sense of anything the government is actually doing that’s all that bad. I mean, we see the poverty of District 12 (and a flash of District 11 at one point), as well as the overwhelming affluence of the Capital, so we definitely can assume that there’s a bullshit tax code, but this is about the extent of it.

Gale doesn’t want Katniss to sell deer to the peacekeepers. Why not? Haven’t the foggiest. And yes, I’m aware the later movies probably explore this, and I’m sure the books do. I’m just trying to explain the way this movie, in and of itself, presents.

Like, I happen to know from our general cultural milieu that the games are called “the hunger games” because people can obtain food by putting their name into the reaping multiple times. I also happen to know Katniss has her name in a crazy amount of times. For this reason, I get that “may the odds be ever in your favor” is basically a cruel fucking joke. That’s super impactful. And it was entirely absent from the film.

The most we get is Gale saying that his name is in forty-two times and that “I guess the odds aren’t in my favor.” But we’re not told why. I even went back and checked. This is not aided by the fact that Katniss seems to have a total lack-of-reaction to it. Knowing that she has her name in way more than Gale, you can definitely see how Jennifer Lawrence was trying to project that onto the character. However, I shouldn’t need to have a knowledge base outside this film for it to make sense and for a character to come to life.

When Gale mouths “may the odds be ever in your favor” at Katniss and she laughs, it’s almost just confusing in the movie.

Fuck, even the “I volunteer as tribute” moment seemed anti-climactic. I don’t really know what this means when she says it. I don’t know if this is something that’s typically done or not. If this was a valid option, was it not something Katniss considered when her sister was having those night-terrors about getting chosen? Because it’s portrayed as quite spur-of-the-moment decision. It also went from 0-60 in the span of a second. Yet for some reason this tone shift didn’t make it effective; it gave me whiplash.

Then there’s Katniss herself. The writers of the movie seemed to take the approach, “why have her say something when we don’t have to.” Which, my guess for why that was the case is that she’s a very internal character in the books, and it’s difficult to translate her to film. However, watching without book-knowledge of her personality is infuriating. She doesn’t emote. I am pretty sure it’s to a point, right? Like, she’s basically the personification of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, isn’t she?

Katniss’s primary focus seems to be on her “safety” needs.

She is so entirely focused on survival that she is emotionally detached from everyone except her sister, who she would do anything to protect (so again, still survival focused). That in and of itself is one hell of a commentary about the way such a world hardens someone, and I do believe it’s supposed to be jarring for the viewer (or reader) to see this mode of operation up close and personal.

Except, the movie only really hints at this. The best they do is in two scenes. One is where Gale tells Katniss they can run off, and she says that she has Prim. The other is where Peeta says “Yeah, I just keep…wishing I could think of a way to show them. That they don’t own me. You know, if I’m gonna die. I wanna still be me,” and Katniss responds that she can’t afford to think like that.

She’s not a revolutionary…she’s trying to survive. But again, given that this is her entire mode of operation (and also rather predictive for how the 74th games go), it really should have been made a bit clearer. Why is it that Gale has such a different outlook than Katniss, given that they’re from the same district and he doesn’t seem to have a steady supply of food the way Peeta does? 

It’s also very not aided by the fact that the desperation for survival of District 12 citizens wasn’t painted so well. Gale casually scares a deer away like it’s whatever. She mentions it’s the first she’s seen in a year, but she also seems mildly aggravated at most. What is the audience to make of this exchange? Are we supposed to think he’s a giant asshole who’s willing to just endanger Katniss like that for lols? Also, Katniss’s bow was hidden, it seemed, but then she and Gale talk about selling meat to the peacekeepers, so is she able to hunt or not? Again, how does this system work? And not to belabor the point, but they super needed to mention the whole “put your name in for food” thing. That’s almost inexcusable.

I understand that we see Katniss looking hungry in the flashback that they decided to break up into chunks with Peeta and the muddy bread. I don’t think it was enough, nor did it come early enough, for us to truly understand the stakes. And without understanding the stakes, her character becomes rather inscrutable.

Maybe that’s commentary in and of itself too. It makes me uncomfortable that I can’t relate to her, because I wonder if it’s the result of my own privilege, and that I’m coming from an incredibly classist postion. So, was this intentionally done? I find that a difficult claim to make, to be honest, especially given that they spent time trying to characterize her relationships to her sister and mom, the latter of which was wildly unsuccessful. There was a passing remark about “you can’t turn out again,” but it doesn’t fully explain the portrayed animosity between them. Honestly, the bad lip reading of this movie did a better job with those two.

But still, why go into this if the idea was to create a character we couldn’t connect with as a point? Which doesn’t sound like something people who write movies or books aim for, to be perfectly honest.

Either way, intentional or not, it made a lot of moments with Katniss just plain odd. Like when she shoves Peeta against a wall and screams at him for telling the Capital that he had a crush on her. Why was she mad? “You made me look weak.” Survival, right? And she doesn’t understand the pragmatics of politics as part of that survival yet? That’s her arc? I’m not sure why I’m complaining, it’s just that I feel as though I am doing so much guesswork to explain the protagonist’s actions. And like, there’s analyzing and thinking deeply, and then there’s doing the writers’ work for them. This movie felt a little too on that line at all times.

Though, hey, help me out, because here’s some guesswork I just couldn’t do: Katniss and Cinna’s relationship. What was this? Why were they so inexplicably close? Why would romantic music not have felt out of place during their scenes? As far as I could tell, he just kind of liked that he had someone to show off his flame-retardant clothes on, but yet they’re suddenly having these heart-to-hearts.

I don’t know, I feel like I’m being overly harsh, because this wasn’t a bad movie, and once the hunger games themselves started, it was quite focused. I think my main issue is that they sort of had two options for what they could have done with this film: focus on the world-building…on the dystopian nature of it all, or focus on really developing our understanding of Katniss’s character, and frame this about her internal journey. I don’t think in one movie, it would have been possible to fit both to the extent they needed. They tried, however, and I think the end result was that they didn’t do either very well.

It’s a rare day that I actually want something to be more spoon-feedy, but if a story that you’re bringing to the visual medium is structured around a reticent character, we’re going to need to be given something to work with beyond what we had. It was difficult for me to feel engaged or connected to her. It was even more difficult for me to feel engaged or connected to the world itself.

You know who I did feel connected to? Rue. She was perfect. I mean, they hardly had their work cut out for them with her character; she was an adorable kid who represents pure innocence and really just paints how fucked up these games are. She was also totally fine before she decided to help out Katniss. She probably could have hidden in the trees and won the whole damn thing. Which again, was maybe to a point. And with their relationship, we didn’t need any help to get the idea that Katniss was totally projecting Prim onto her, and why her grief hit her so hard.

Let’s continue with another positive: President Snow. There was a slight problem that his introduction as the president was rather “blink and you’ll miss it.” But I could watch that guy clipping roses and talking about how important it is to limit hope all day. If the entire movie had been him and Seneca disagreeing on the finer points of how to keep the masses sufficiently oppressed, I would have been a happy camper.

That being said, the idea that these games didn’t incite a riot years and years ago is ridiculous. We see District 11 start to revolt with Rue’s death, but this can’t have been the first time a cute young girl ate it. Also, like, I totally understand the whole environmental manipulation of the games to create more dramaz, I really do. The fire to push Katniss towards the Careers was clever. However, they were also just literally winging fireballs at her head. Like, there were five or six times she had to duck with her cat-like reflexes, or else she would have completely died with a face full of fire. This was just kind of obviously the gamemaker (representing the forces of the government) choosing who lives and who dies. So…using these games a means to squash rebellion is a bit nonsensical. Everyone can tell what’s up, you know?

And seriously, how did Seneca think the people would react when they just up and changed the rules again to encourage Katniss and Peeta to kill each other? Even if the nightlock thing hadn’t happened, there is no one who would be satisfied here. It’s like when Susan G. Komen said they wouldn’t support Planned Parenthood anymore, but then backtracked after the uproar, resulting in everyone hating them. I digress.

The game itself was the most successful part of this movie, and I think that’s because it’s the kind of thing really made for the visual medium. We felt the stakes, and opening with that bloodbath at the Cornucopia was horrifying in all the right ways. I did find the whole thing a little…thematically void? I mean, okay, there was Katniss’s growth of learning that “playing the game” and “putting on a show” was as crucial to survival as firing her bow. That is interesting, but we only see this in basically the last ten minutes of the game, after she finds Peeta. And frankly, it’s because she had no other reason to be political before they were working together.

In fact, I think you could make the strong argument that this entire movie was more about Haymitch’s character arc, where he is slowly forced out of his nihilistic attitude because he accidentally allows himself to give a shit about someone. And we see how much he struggles with this, and yet he still goes to bat for Katniss and screams at people in the Capital to see to her survival.

That’s a beautiful story, very worth telling. But I’m definitely supposed to care about Katniss more, right? And weirdly my investment with the side-characters left me with an emptier feeling about the entire movie, as if I was missing something fundamental about the intrigue.

What’s weird is that despite the game being the part that worked the best, I’m struggling to say anything about it. Is it worth mentioning that the Careers all had Idiot Balls? Which yeah, we can chalk a lot of it up to hubris, like when the knife-throwing girl taunted Katniss instead of killing her, but what about the part where Katniss was in a tree with no weapons, one person tried climbing it and failed, one person fired one arrow from a shitty angle, and then they just threw up their hands and decided to take a group nap? Also, they had kept Peeta alive because he was their “best chance of finding Katniss” (why?). But like, guys. She’s right there. She’s in that tree. Why didn’t you kill Peeta immediately? Too sleepy?

It broke a bit of the suspension of disbelief. Though not as much as the idea that Peeta, when bleeding to death, managed to cake-paint his face and cover himself in moss.

Those must have been some cakes.

Interestingly I had no issues with shaky cam. I actually didn’t find the camera work to be shaky in the slightest. Wasn’t that a criticism of these films? Maybe it’ll come in the later ones.

The last thing I want to touch on was the love triangle. They did a great job of showing Katniss’s cynicism in her approach to Peeta, as well as his earnestness. However, I feel like the screenwriters and director wanted the audience to focus on this subplot more than the narrative lent itself to. Like, we see more Gale reaction shots to the game than Prim, but yet it’s quite obvious that her sister is Katniss’s number one motivation. Same with the very ending; we see Prim riding on Gale’s shoulders, but the direction of the scene focuses on Katniss and Gale exchanging a look. To me, that was unearned, and it was hard to look at it as anything else but pandering.

Jeeze, listing this all out, it seems like I have a lot of negative opinions of this film. But I didn’t dislike it. Actually, I found it enjoyable, though I’m not sure I can explain why. Maybe it was the whiskey.

I think overall, I’m just left a little perplexed as to why this was the phenomenon that it was. I know the books offer a lot more, but I was under the impression that this franchise was not Harry Potter; that there are a large amount of movie-only fans. Perhaps I’m wrong. All I can say is that in my opinion, this movie in and of itself simply didn’t do enough to merit a sequel. It sort of felt like a first draft, with too many holes that needed filling.

That being said, however, I am genuinely curious to see the next film and hopefully get those details. Still, at this point, it’s an academic curiosity more than excitement. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is the reason why I feel as though I’m missing out on something. We’ll see if Catching Fire can flip that switch for me.

All images courtesy of Lions Gate Entertainment 

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