It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.
Or a limb.
Or their life.
On second thoughts, for the folks in the Hunger Games – at least those in the Capitol – that’s when the fun and games begin.
I was rather late to the fandom of the Hunger Games – at least in book terms – I picked up the first one in late 2012, when I’d started hearing noise about the movie – promptly devoured it in a few hours, and downloaded the next two books in the series. So yes, I am unabashedly a fan of the book series, and the movie franchise as well. I think the adaptions, barring a few flaws, have been extremely well done.
And, as the final instalment of the franchise is set to hit the screens in less than ten days, I thought I’d share my thoughts on exactly what makes the Hunger Games a favourite of mine.
The Political Message
I remember sitting in one of my final year politics lectures, and excitedly discussing with my buddy what a great thesis topic it would make (I fly that nerd flag high, okay) – dissecting the deceptively simple kinds of issues included in the book – government propaganda, divide and conquer strategies, class struggle and warfare, violence as entertainment… And then deeper issues, such as the idea that a revolution needs an entire change of government structure, not just new faces in the same old system, the role of technology in aiding counter-propaganda, the nature of political sacrifices – what you can afford to lose for the prospect of bigger future gains – and the role of patronage in keeping people alive within a system where people are instantly replaceable.
True, these elements aren’t new to movies and books with the theme of uprising, but I just really enjoyed the way that they were portrayed. The way the series tackled questions of humanity and resilience was fairly moving – for instance, we see in Haymitch how the winners never really escape the hell of the arena, being brought back in year after year to mentor and send more kids to their grisly deaths – and the various ways the victors have of coping. Usually self-destructive, of course- self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, soaking themselves in luxury to forget, sheer inner fortitude… In many of these people, such as Annie and Katniss, we see the very real impact of PTSD.
We see in Katniss how people are used as symbols, with the narrative constructed around them, but which they can seldom live up to. We see in Prim, Finnick and countless nameless others the nature of human sacrifice, and how many times these sacrifices are worthy in allowing others to pursue the ultimate goal, but in more cases, how these sacrifices are so damn unnecessary. Who didn’t get chills down their arms in Mockingjay Part 1, when the group from District 5 blows up the hydro-electric dam to the background chant of The Hanging Tree?
We see what emerged as a clear division between bad and good in the first book morphing into a sticky moral grey area. With Coin, with Gale, with everyone involved in the revolution, and the extent of the lines people are prepared to cross.
And finally, it raises the question of how: how do you come back from something like this? How do you rebuild a society? And how do you make sure that in 100 years time, something like this doesn’t happen again?
I was also impressed with the manner in which both the books and films handled gender. Katniss takes on what would traditionally be considered the ‘male’ role – she is the killer, the hunter, the provider – Peeta is what could be deemed the sensitive, artistic one – the one who needs to be protected at all costs, the one who is repeatedly rescued by a girl. I don’t think Peeta is even shown doing any killing in the movies, and I can’t recall if he explicitly killed someone in the books. But Peeta is no weakling, (nor should we be considering his ‘feminine’ traits a weakness to begin with, but I digress), and I think Josh Hutcherson does a great job of portraying the gentler nature of Peeta while still radiating a quiet strength and physical presence. He is the rock. He is the pure soul.
And as for the rest of the combatants in the games, well, the female half are just as competent. Just think back to feral Clove from the first book, played superbly by Isabelle Fuhrman. Because many a time, the games are a test of skill, not brute strength. I mean, Panem may be a murderous society, true, but at least they’re egalitarian in this way, right?!
As an aside, I was incredibly satisfied with Katniss’ practical costumes for her fighting – in the arena and as the Mockingjay. Female fighters in today’s media are almost always sexied up – you know, Black Widow-esque tight leather or metal boob plates or midriffs exposed or whatever other male fantasy has struck the producers. But Katniss is clad in a suit that is both designed for her figure but moreso for protection, and the practicalities of the down and dirty of fighting.
In terms of the casting, while Katniss was very much whitewashed (She was described as olive skinned with dark hair in the books) – I think J Law does a fantastic job in bringing Katniss to life. And Prim? Movie Prim was a hundred times better than book Prim. The latter was a Mary Sue, personality-less and angelic. Movie Prim – well, in her limited screentime, you can much more easily see her development into someone determined to do her bit to help people in the revolution, strongly affected by the events involving her older sister. Movie Prim is the first one to raise her hand in the three-fingered salute at the second reaping, which was a rather poignant moment.
Woody Harrelson is perfect as the world-weary alcoholic Haymitch. Donald Sutherland oozes menace from his very pores. Elizabeth Banks is the perfect Effie, over-the-top but with a core of steel. Philip Seymour-Hoffman (RIP) as the affable warmonger. Even Lenny Kravitz, who, might I say, rocked that gold eyeliner like it was nobody’s business.
Both the movie scores and the soundtrack have been pretty awesome. James Newton Howard is a superb composer, and has scored all four films. The piece ‘Rue’s Farewell’ had me weeping, and I thought that ‘The Hanging Tree’, with Jennifer’s raspy voice, was utterly gorgeous and haunting.
The soundtracks, meanwhile, brought together quite an array of different artists, with some big names to boot – Lorde (who also curated the Mockingjay Part 1 soundtrack), Of Monsters and Men, Taylor Swift, Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, The Decemberists, Sia and The Lumineers, among others. There’s been no word yet of the contents of the final soundtrack, but I have no doubts that it’s going to be stellar.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how fantastic I think the marketing for the film franchise has been. From character portraits, to online Capitol Couture fashion collections, trailer snippets and cryptic code-breaking tweets, as well as social media pages updated from the perspective of the repressive Capitol, the marketing for the franchise has really made fantastic use of social media and the sharing of digital content. Most of the time, the sharing of snippets, stills and other content was a worthwhile treat for the fans as well, building up excitement as the days were counted down.
One of the greatest ironies is that we, as viewers, become complicit in one of the very things that the film wishes to critique: violence glorified as entertainment.
We have the recently announced plans for Hunger Games-themed amusement parks, as well as last year’s release of The Hanging Tree as a fast-paced club single, and it’s almost meta: we’re reenacting exactly what Collins sought to highlight the hypocrisy of and completely subverting the message of the book. What, you want to experience a theme-park ride based on a book series where children are forced to fight to the death – and where later on, the privileged go to visit these death arenas for fun? A case of art imitating life, amirite?
And I get it. At the end, we can all say ‘It’s just a movie.’
But I think we’d be remiss in not looking a little deeper into the judgment cast on us by the film.