By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
The Hunger Games was a film phenomenon in March and April. It brought in a great deal of money during a time of year when movies usually don’t do so, and it brought in the highest weekend box office numbers for four weeks in a row. I can’t remember a time when a March movie was so successful. As I watched the news, seeing these numbers week after week, I realized this was a film I needed to watch.
Plot and Technique
I have not read the best-selling trilogy by Suzanne Collins of which The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2010) is the first. But I can see why viewers other than fans of the books also flocked to see the film. The movie pulls us in immediately with both its central plot and its technique. The story line is in part horrendous: in the future, 24 children (ages 12 to 18) are taken every year from 12 districts in a corrupt nation (reminiscent of ancient Rome) and displayed for the wealthy to see before being tossed into an arena of death where they must kill each other until only one remains. From the movie’s outset, the audience is drawn into the suspense of whether or not the young heroine of the story will survive. It’s a tension that sucks us in and never leaves us until the film’s finale.
The tension is increased by specific techniques used early in the film. Among these are a setting that draws our sympathy: our heroine lives in what looks like a Depres-sion-era Appalachian coal town,
complete with poor inhabitants wearing period costumes and dystopian white-suited police whose outfits recall Orwellian images from 1960s sci-fi films. The good guys are iconic images of the poor and needy—in need of rescue—while the bad guys recall Brave New World mixed with 1984. Later we see the capitol of this unjust society where the architecture reminds us of Nazi Germany and the rich are costumed and made up to look so gaudy as to anger us—their wealth and opulence are a waste while the poor and needy around them starve.
The film makes brilliant use of tight camera angles—extreme close-ups on the characters we most sympathize with. We’re forced to look into their faces, to see their emotion, especially their sense of helplessness. We can’t see beyond the boundaries of the lens to place the people within a context. This combined with a “shaky-cam” approach to the filming early on makes us feel a little lost and so a little helpless ourselves. Plot and technique make us emotionally invested in the story from the beginning.
Saints or Sinners?
But is this a good thing? The Hunger Games is a classic morality tale. The lines of good and evil are clearly drawn. The heroine needs not only to win the game, but to find a way to win without brutality while simultaneously proving the game’s inherent evil. She succeeds only partially, but her success offers a glimmer of hope. One technique element in the movie’s favor is the fact that the filmmakers showed restraint in the portrayals of violence against children; but there is enough blood and enough killing to show us the horror of the world we’ve entered. Still, I wonder if such restraint is enough.
In the end, this is a story that centers in gladiatorial violence on the part of children against children. Shouldn’t we have a hard time getting around that? I ask the question rather than state the point because I found myself enjoying the film. Here’s a movie portraying a bunch of rich folks wanting to watch kids kill each other, and we hate these people for their lack of compassion. But here’s the problem: four weeks of top box office ticket sales in a row proves that we want to watch these kids kill each other too. We may hate the rich within the movie, but it turns out that we are them.
The Hunger Games is probably a commentary on the power of story and the magic of film to portray the triumph of good over overwhelmingly evil odds. But what if it’s a commentary on the shocking games of violence Americans have come to want for their entertainment? Not being sure which is the case frightens me.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.