The Hunger Games: Bread and Circus

Survivor meets Big Brother meets Battle Royale in an artfully poor District 12 and a Marie Antoinette inspired rich Capitol: that’s The Hunger Games
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata

After tales of teen wizard Harry Potter and the vampire romance, Twilight, comes yet another young adult novel turned into a big-budget blockbuster with violence, bloodletting, romance and a pretty heroine: The  Hunger Games.

The inspiration for the novel, according to author Suzanne Collins, came from surfing channels on television. There were people competing in a reality show on one channel, even as on another she could see footage of the invasion of Iraq. The two “began to blur in this very unsettling way” and the idea for the book was formed. So that’s the movie in a nutshell – Survivor meets Big Brother meets Battle Royale, mixed with Greek and Roman literary references, and set in an artfully poor District 12 or a Marie Antoinette-inspired rich Capitol.

Our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl from the dirt-poor District 12, has to volunteer as a “tribute” (this is what the participants are called) to save her 12-year-old sister, Primrose, from entering the nightmare of any dystopian future – a gladiatorial fight to death in a carefully controlled wooded “arena” operated by a group of wealthy authoritarians with big, colourful hair and the brutal manners of French courtiers. It is an event that everyone, from the dandyish rich in the Capitol to the starving poor in the other districts, is glued to – a fight aptly called “The Hunger Games”.

Katniss is gritty enough to win sympathy as she has to transform from the tough bow-wielding Diana to a PR machine — one who can slickly traverse the political minefield of reality TV and charm the audience into sponsoring her with food and medicines to survive. Lawrence performs this dichotomy with panache.

As she and her fellow tribute and “fatted calf ” Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) rise up in the TV rankings with their concocted love story, we get a glimpse -— alas, a very brief one  — into the hedonistic lifestyle of the Capitol and its politicians, with their imaginatively trimmed beards and unimaginative dialogue and preening. The entire gamut of grown-up talent, from Donald Sutherland to Woody Harrelson, sleepwalk their way through their roles, albeit professionally, and only Stanley Tucci, as crafty TV host Caesar Flickerman, manages to hold some of the audience’s waning attention.

Katniss’s real journey begins when she enters the verdant beauty of the arena for her brutal coming-of-age battle, and that’s where the film starts to truly unravel.

Trying to win over a PG-13 audience (the rating implies ‘parents strongly cautioned’), Director Gary Ross glosses over the violence, the pain, the intolerable cruelty that a child killing a child brings to the audience. The violent deaths are dealt clinically with sharp editing and dizzy camera shots. The film offers no character sketch at all of the other tributes whom Katniss has to fight, other than Rue (Amandla Stenberg) — a tiny waif of a warrior who has to be sacrificed for Katniss to find her nerve of steel in this bloody rampage.

The other tributes of richer districts, who have been training for years for these games, are shadowy figures, neither children nor villains — just statistics for the body count to build up. The audience remains curiously detached from the action on screen, because it feels no empathy or sympathy for the participants. A vein of emotional tension should have run through the film, but what you get instead is a lacklustre romance, brief emotionless friendships, and an indifferent screenplay that even computer-generated wolverines cannot perk up.

Katniss Everdeen is the stuff that the women who sailed on the Mayflower might have been made of — hardy realists who survived against all odds. Here is a heroine who should have lit up the screen like a 21st-century Spartacus, but she only manages to be a dim glow of hope and heroics, and that too, only because of Lawrence’s doughty performance.

The Hunger Games had the promise of a grand 21st-century epic; instead, it becomes, borrowing a phrase from the film, panem et circenses, which literally translates into ‘bread and circuses’ – a phrase that describes entertainment used to distract public attention from more important matters. And that’s the feeling the film leaves you with as you exit the theatre.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2012