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The Hunger Games was a delight in 2012, merging elements of Winter’s Bone, Battle Royale, The Running Man, Blade Runner, Never Let Me Go and quite a few others to create a grim and compelling vision of the future. The only thing that bugged me about Gary Ross’ film was the excessive use of shaky cam, which distracted from the sense of oppression and fear intrinsic to the setting. Happily, the cinematography of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is, as one satisfied viewer put it, as steady as the bow of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), allowing greater appreciation of the wide vistas of the various districts, as well as the malevolent jungle of the arena in which the Quarter Quell Games take place. A stark colour palate conveys the sombre situation of District Twelve, where Katniss along with fellow victors Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) prepare for their victory tour. Meanwhile, Katniss must balance her growing feelings for Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) with the need to protect her family, especially as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) responds to the stirrings of rebellion.
In an early scene, Snow asks Katniss if she would like to be in a real war, indicating the wider ramifications of this instalment. We see more of Panem this time around, including the other districts and the oppression they suffer, as well as the decadence of the Capitol, where a far more garish mise-en-scene emphasises the excess and over-indulgence of the inhabitants who take purging agents to make themselves sick enabling them to eat more, while people in the districts are starving. This sociological dimension is one of the strongest elements of The Hunger Games franchise, as its dystopia is based upon class divisions held in place by an iron fist. As the seeds of rebellion begin, the ironically named Peacekeepers crack down on dissenters, whipping people in the streets and, at one point, threatening to shoot Katniss where she stands until Haymitch points out the negative publicity.
The media presence of the Hunger Games victors, and indeed the media as a tool in Panem, is for me the other key elements of the franchise, explored in greater detail on screen than on the page. I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games after seeing the first film, and am reading Catching Fire at the moment (I’m funny with books). Being a first person, present tense narrative, Collins’ prose never wavers from Katniss’ perspective, and while a lot of detail can be included in Katniss’ internal monologue, the films take a wider perspective and show events beyond her experience. In particular, scenes of the control room and interactions between Snow and his advisors, especially the new head game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), demonstrate the mechanics and predictions of propaganda, such as Plutarch’s chilling line: ‘I agree that she should die but in the right way’ – i.e. on television. While The Hunger Games emphasises the malevolent ideology of having children fight to the death, Catching Fire demonstrates the power of the media to both the state and the populace, a power that is all too apparent in contemporary society.
Catching Fire, therefore, builds upon the premise of its predecessor, doing what all good sequels do – expand the world, give us what is familiar but also what is different. The legacy of the first film appears as trauma, as Katniss wakes from a nightmare and, when it is announced that the tributes for the 75th Hunger Games will be drawn from the pool of winners, makes a desperate, futile flee into the woods, the scene palpably expressing her panic and horror. To have been through hell and then be informed that you’ll be doing it all over again (she is, after all, the only living female victor in District 12) would be horrendous, and the film conveys the fear and dread of such an ultimatum, with the added understanding that this is an act of political oppression conceived by Snow and Plutarch. Here is the greater scope of Catching Fire, the development of the initial premise to allow a fuller understanding of the fictional world.
Some interesting features, that were not evident in The Hunger Games, become apparent in Catching Fire. In the first film’s reaping scene, a video is shown that recounts the historical Uprising, including footage of nuclear blasts. When I saw this, I took it to be stock footage or simply special effects put into the propaganda film by the Capitol’s producers. But when Snow threatens Katniss, he reminds her of District 13, which was reduced to a radioactive ruin during the Uprising, and remains a potent symbol of the Capitol’s power. Furthermore, once the Games begin, Catching Fire does not simply repeat the survival drama of the first film, with Katniss battling the various perils and other tributes as they come at her. Catching Fire has plenty of action set pieces during the Games, including ferocious baboons (much like the ghastly After Earth), poisonous mist, forcefields and gigantic waves, but also an element of mystery as the other tributes assist her and each other to a surprising extent. Having not read the book, the final revelation and its resultant cliff-hanger came as a genuine shock, opening the tale even wider. Fans of the books report that Mockingjay is the weakest of the trilogy, but I eagerly anticipate where the story will go from here.
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) has proved very successful with critics and audiences, including fans of the books by Suzanne Collins as well as those unfamiliar with the material. I have not read the book, and my original intention was to see the film cold with very little knowledge. But this didn’t work out as I heard both a radio review and an interview with the film’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, so I read further reviews and went into fairly well informed, which is the normal way I see a film.
Not that there’s anything wrong with knowing what to expect, it doesn’t stop me having a good time, and I was very impressed with The Hunger Games. It was a compelling story, convincingly performed, well-handled by Gary Ross, and struck just the right thematic balance. A major portion of the film’s action is an extended set piece consisting of the eponymous games themselves, and this is thrilling and gripping and, in places, suitably nasty. Yet to watch these sequences is to be ambivalent, as on the one hand there is gripping action with its attendant visceral thrill, but on the other it is very disturbing to watch children kill each other for the purposes of entertainment. This tension is maintained throughout the Hunger Games section of the narrative. In an early scene, characters discuss the perversity of watching actual people die, or perhaps watching people at all. It is to the film’s credit that it does not labour this point, leaving the viewer to ponder the ethics.
Overall, the film succeeds as a chilling vision of the future, although this vision could be improved by changing the one area that I thought did not work. Much of the film is shot with hand-held cameras, commonly known as “shaky cam”, which for some has the effect of inducing nausea and motion sickness. I wasn’t queasy, but the shaky cam aesthetic was irritating and jarred me out of the film in places. This was not always the case – once the Hunger Games are underway, the unsteady cinematography was effective in conveying the unpredictability of the hostile environment, the sudden outbursts of violence and the constant threat of death to our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence). But in the opening sequences that establish the world of the film and the circumstances in which the Hunger Games take place, a more composed aesthetic would have been more effective. The reason for this is that wide angled, static shots can convey oppression visually, capturing the subjugated inhabitants of District 12 within the shot composition. Show the oppressed proletariat within the vision of the panopticon, and the sense of oppression can be made all the stronger. Aside from these cinematographic infelicities though, this is an impressive and enjoyable piece of work.
Furthermore, The Hunger Games is especially interesting in terms of the tropes and themes it brings together. Reality TV and its cinematic incarnations, such as The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) and EdTV (Ron Howard, 1999), form a lineage that feeds into The Hunger Games, as well as more violent treatments such as Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) and The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987). To me, however, a more interesting lineage is a couple of sub-genres that I’ve recently researched. One is Rural America, on which I wrote an essay for the Directory of World Cinema: American Independent Cinema. The subject of such films as Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001), Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008) and Undertow (David Gordon Green, 2004) is poor, (mostly) white, broken families, plagued by inertia. A film that creates an obvious link between this sub-genre and The Hunger Games is Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), which stars Jennifer Lawrence as a teenager who has to take charge of her family (sound familiar?). While The Hunger Games has a bigger budget, wider distribution and far higher exposure than these “indie” offerings, the concerns of family responsibility and entrapment are just as apparent. The rural environment emphasises self-sufficiency, through Katniss’ bow-hunting, as well as community since all district inhabitants seem to know each other.
As a contrast with the rural districts, the Capitol that governs them is a city, filled with prosperous people who express their wealth through flamboyant attire. The state of “Panem”, where the story is set, declares a clear hierarchy between the urban and the rural, which demonstrates the second sub-genre that feeds into The Hunger Games, what I call “class-topia”: a dystopia that is explicity built upon class divisions. The legacy goes back to Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), in which the proletariat workers slave for the benefit of the upper class, a trope seen again in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) that features a replicant slave race. More recent examples include Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) and The Island (Michael Bay, 2005), in which the underclass provide those above with organs, and Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006), in which immigrants are cast as an underclass to be abused and removed. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) features an artificial underclass while humans sit in permanent consumption, and In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011) draws class boundaries between those who literally do and do not have time to live. In much the same way, The Hunger Games presents classes divided explicitly for the sake of power – those of the districts are governed and oppressed by the Capitol and forced into the maintenance of their oppression as aptly named “tributes”. Here is rural America, designated as an underclass in a dystopia that demands their death and suffering as entertainment: it’s Winter’s Bone meets In Time meets Battle Royale!
The “class-topia” sub-genre highlights the richness of class divisions for dramatization, and the ever-present opportunities of science fiction to draw attention to elements of contemporary culture. In the case of The Hunger Games, it is extremely positive that the film is disturbing, as has been noted by audiences and reviewers (the phrase “the hunger games is disturbing” yields over 4 million results on Google). It should disturb us, not only to see children fighting for the death, but for the underclass to be coerced into roles for the maintenance of an unjust system.