Review of The Hunger Games (Spoilers Ahead)

The first thing I must confess before I write this review is that it's going to be long. I suspect it's going to be very long. I have plenty to say, so either skim through as you see fit or buckle up for the long haul of critical, disparaging evaluation it's certain to be.

The second thing I must confess is that I haven't read The Hunger Games trilogy. I haven't read a single word from a single one of the books, so as you read my words here please understand that they're referencing only the movie. As I've been out of the YA loop for a while, I honestly hadn't even heard of these books until only a few weeks ago, when buzz about the movie started to circulate. The more I heard about this franchise, the more intrigued I became. It seemed like there were some legitimate themes and worldwide issues that this author intended to explore, and before long I was on board to see the movie (yes, even though I hadn't read the books).

Suzanne Collins has stated that her idea for The Hunger Games came when she was flipping through channels and was disconcerted with the blurring of one channel, which featured the Iraq invasion, and another, which featured people competing in a reality show. The whole idea of watching war coverage and then, in the next second, watching people self inflict hardship for the sake of a game, was pretty disturbing to Collins, and the first ideas for The Hunger Games began floating through her head.

What she came up with, obviously, became immensely popular, with the latest result being a Blockbuster film of the same name. I saw it today (Monday, March 26) expecting the best. All of the potential themes, from corrupt government to the nature of "good" and "evil," seemed so promising and timely that I couldn't wait to see the film, possibly read the books, and offer up a cultural analysis with the information I came away with.

What I have for you, instead, is a review.

But I'm already being long-winded, so let me simply begin with a synopsis of events for my friends and family out there who haven't had time (or interest) to see this film or read the books. I'll keep this brief, but I do want to offer a bit of information so that everyone is on the same page here. To make a (very) long story short...

SUMMARY

In the post-apocalyptic world of Panem (which used to be North America), the government has separated the people into, basically, the "haves" and the "have nots." The former live in a single large city endowed with technology, fantastic entertainment, and all the food, drink, and modern convenience anyone could want. The latter, however, are divided up into twelve districts, where they essentially live in poverty with very little hope for their futures.

about 75 years ago (or so) the people gathered in a rebellion to overthrow their corrupt government and were defeated. As a result, the Hunger Games were developed, a punishment designed to remind people of their place and the power of their government. In short, two youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district (24 kids in all) have to compete in a televised reality show. This competition is basically Survivor on steroids: these kids are set out in the wilderness with no food or water, and basically have to kill each other. Only the last one standing is allowed to go home.

So then we meet Katniss, a young woman from District 12 (I think) who volunteers to be a "tribute" in the games so that her younger sister (who was initially chosen) will not have to go. So she, along with the baker's son, Peeta, travel to the big city to meet their likely dubious fates.

They, along with the 22 other tributes, train for two weeks, are introduced to their audience (they need to be likeable, apparently, in order to gain sponsors who will send them provisions to help them survive during the games), and are generally assessed before being set out in the arena. During this time, Peeta also declares his unrequited love for Katniss, which, if you can believe it, turns out to actually be important.

Fast forward through lots of BS, lots of kids dying, and we get to the part where the Capitol declares that there can be two winners instead of one, as long as they come from the same district (which is a basic capitalization on the fact that the audience is digging that Peeta's in love with Katniss). So the two of them team up and, unsurprisingly, come out as the last two standing. And when the Capitol reverses its new rule, stating now that there can, in fact, be only one winner, the two lovebirds decide to kill themselves instead of each other. They're about to eat some deadly berries (that recently killed one of their competitors) when the Capitol decides that they'd rather have two winners instead of none and declare both Katniss and Peeta the winners. That's good for them, as they get to go home, but it's also seen as rebellion, so we're left feeling like they're still in danger as the credits roll.

THE BREAKDOWN

Let me start off by saying that there were some things I did like about this movie. I enjoyed that this story was centered around a female character that was actually portrayed as a heroine rather than a simple, one-dimensional girl in love. Katniss is badass, makes some tough decisions on her own, handles herself well, and actually has ideas about herself and her well-being that don't necessarily involve a husband and children. She showed her weakness at times, but came out on top in the end because of her inner strength, her compassion, and her strong will (though I can't say very much for her intellect during the games, which I'll get into later). She's a strong character that deserves recognition, at least on some level.

The male lead, Peeta, deserves some mention, too. His character was kindhearted, and didn't display the overused masculine machismo that seems so prevalent in these types of movies. I think Peeta's character was honestly a good person, and I love it when popular stories can show how great a soft side can be in a guy.

And ... well, that's about all I can think of that I enjoyed about this movie, at least for the time being. So now I'll move on to what didn't work, including an analysis of the potential themes that were completely missed. I'll start with some of the simpler fails that stood out.

For starters, everything was entirely overdone. I like films (and books, for that matter) that make me think, leave me something to analyze and figure out, and generally don't hit me over the head with every point they're trying to make. There was no subtlety to this movie at all. The division between classes was so loud that I felt like the costume and set designers for the "haves" living in the big city took notes from Dr. Seuss. The foreshadowing was more like a continuous, blatant statement about everything that was going to happen next. As such, there were no surprises and no quiet consideration for possible symbolism or deeper meaning. Everything was laid out in an overtly brash blanket statement.

But this is a problem that can happen very easily, in my opinion, when you try to mesh adult themes with not only a YA audience, but also a mass, commercial audience that wants mostly to see action and adventure. I'll say again that I didn't read the books, so maybe there's something within them that the movie didn't pick up on. But the themes that I wanted to see intelligently fleshed out (themes I'll get into in just a bit) were either poorly represented or completely missed, and I think part of that has to do with the fact that the screenwriters here had a choice to make between the Blockbuster that this film is, or the analytical, less popular cultural analysis it could have been.

What wound up happening in the movie was 2 1/2 hours of one event after another, constantly drawing upon one literary reference after another, without slowing down enough to allow anyone to build a connection to the characters or their situations. Honestly, you know something isn't right when you can witness dozens of child deaths and feel disgusted, but not feel empathy for the characters. In the 10 minutes or so that it took for Katniss to mourn the death of 12-year-old Rue, I just wanted the story to move on. Not that I wasn't appalled that this little girl had died, but in all honesty, as an audience member I knew that she would eventually die, and there lacked a connection to her character for me to truly care. That's a problem in a piece such as this one. You want to feel some emotional connection when death occurs.

And a lot of death occurred in this movie. Make no mistake about that. There are 24 kids in this film, and only two of them survive. When the kids first enter the arena, ten (or so) of them are immediately killed in a bloodbath, hatched with machetes or slashed with knives. The smart ones ran immediately to the forest, where they met other fates: one was stung to death by deadly wasps (the result of which was less-than-pretty, trust me), and another was eaten alive by wild dogs. Etcetera, etcetera.

This is part of what has turned some people off of The Hunger Games. Who, after all, wants to watch teenagers massacre each other with machetes and throw spears through each others' hearts? This, however, is the foundation of a theme that I wished they had turned up the volume on.

Let me be more clear. In our culture, we divide "good" and "evil" into very distinct, mutually exclusive categories. We can watch Spiderman kill the Green Goblin and we don't flinch, because the Green Goblin is "evil." We can watch the Cullen clan dispatch vampire James, and feel relieved because he'd been about to kill Bella -- he was "evil." And we can even look on as Repunzel's pet chameleon sends Mother Gothel to her death because Mother Gothel was "evil." In our culture, we train ourselves to justify the killing of some at the hands of others because of the categories we put them in. It's rare to watch an American made movie in which someone doesn't die, but if that person is the villain killed by the hero, we shrug it off. We even cheer about it. And all because of our preconceived notions of "good" and "evil," and who we think deserves to die.

But throw a bunch of innocent teenagers into a death pit together, and suddenly we're uneasy. People are still dying, as they do in every movie we watch, but we don't like it for two reasons. First, we don't like watching kids die (and that's understandable). But secondly, we don't cognitively know what to do with the idea of "good" people killing other "good" people. When it's not a war of good versus evil, and it's simply a matter of survival, killing becomes more disconcerting. This is a cultural issue that I wish The Hunger Games would have explored further, for I think it's worthy of discussion.

This idea actually segments into the next theme that I wish would have been brought up in the film, which is the reality of war itself. People have been discussing the idea of sending children off to war (when we don't even let them drink) in relation to The Hunger Games, and this would have been a worthy theme as well (particularly when discussing the notion that one side always represents "good," while the other side always represents "evil"). But nothing in this movie even remotely resembled war -- it was purely a punishment in the form of a gruesome game. It was strictly the ultimate Survivor-type show, complete with cameras, alliances, and make-out sessions designed to get the audience's attention. There were no "sides" to take, no "District versus District." It was purely individuals set against other individuals, with only one person coming out as a supposed victor.

Well, wait, I take that back ... just a bit. In a final scene, when Cato (the last standing tribute besides Katniss and Peeta) is about to be killed, but is holding Peeta by the neck and threatening to take him down, too, he does mention that he'd rather kill Peeta than let him go for no other reason than to bring honor to his District. So, yeah, there's some semblance of war mentality there. But on a whole, the movie completely missed that mark.

Another theme that this author supposedly drew upon was American culture's shameful addiction to reality TV. Would we really turn away, the story supposedly asks, if Survivor was a fight to the death? Or would we watch? What if there was more meaning to being "voted out?" How would we respond? I think it's a good question, and deserving of discussion, but when you add coercion of teenagers into the mix, it really deprives all credibility from that premise. When you're watching out of punishment, and not entertainment, what point are you making regarding reality TV?

Which brings me to my next point, which is that so much of this premise just didn't make sense. The writers made it very difficult to suspend disbelief for even a moment because everything was so freaking non-believable. To start off with, I didn't understand why these Hunger Games centered around children. Sending adults off to be Gladiators would seem more logical. I mean, honestly -- you not only expect rich people to be entertained by teenagers murdering each other, but you think it's also going to eradicate rebellion? We're supposed to buy that? If it were my kid, I'd rebel. The "hope" that he might be the one kid out of 24 that survived wouldn't be enough to keep me in check.

And there were plenty of times that Katniss made some really odd choices, seeing as how she was fighting for her survival. I mean, okay, I know that she was very sad to see Rue die ... but honestly, when it came down to it, either she or Rue was going to have to die, so taking so much time to create a grave site, while honorable, didn't make sense seeing as how there were people after her. Ruthless people who wanted to kill her. Also, running into a clearing to rescue your trapped friend seems like a trap in and of itself. Risking your life in such a situation doesn't make sense when you're talking about someone as keen on survival as Katniss.

The other aspect that grew quite tiresome throughout the film was the constant literary reference. I'm not talking about literary allusions that are carefully woven into a story, but rather the blatant use of exhausted literary devices that are so in-your-face, it's painful. Romeo and Juliet was the most obvious one here. Katniss and Peeta are referred to as "star-crossed lovers" throughout the duration of the film, but when they tried to pull mutual suicide in the end, as clever a plot device as it may have seemed to some, I seriously wanted to smack someone.

Not that I didn't see it coming, because predictability was another huge fail within this movie. Primrose was chosen to participate in The Hunger Games? We saw that coming. Oh, Katniss is going to volunteer instead? We saw that coming, too. As I said before, there lacked very much surprise and edge-of-your-seat tension because everything was so nicely laid out.

I'm going to step into another area of critique here and add that it would have helped if the actors had created more depth within their characters. They weren't horrible, mind you, but their performances lacked the solid foundation to build a bond with the audience. There were some big names in this movie, too, including Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and Elizabeth Banks. Jennifer Lawrence (who played Mystique in X-Men, First Class) played Katniss, and Josh Hutcherson (of The Mysterious Island fame) played Peeta. Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, and Liam Hemsworth also had roles. Usually people expect quite a bit from such a seasoned cast, and so when you're left with flat, contrived characters who use a few flashbacks in trying (and ultimately failing) to create meaningful back stories, the result is a blank-faced audience rather than an emotion-filled one. (At least this was the case for me.)

No, not even the people involved could bring this dry, rough, and brutal film to life. What was meant to be an in-your-face scrutiny of culture and the human race was only a disturbing shell of the thrilling and thought-provoking story I think it wanted to be. Again, I'll point out that I think it had so much potential. There are so many themes that are timely, to the point, and relevant that could have possibly been explored. But, again, these are adult themes, and this movie is an action-adventure based on a YA book. Something isn't translating.

You know what, though? This is a wildly popular movie, and a wildly popular book series. Something is resonating with audiences around the country. So take my words for what they are -- simply, my opinion on what I found to be a contrived premise filled with missed opportunities that could have taken it to the next level. I, for one, no longer have any interest in picking up the books or venturing out to see the second and third movies. But I am sure that plenty of people will, and they will enjoy it all in exactly the context it was meant to be.

So to everyone out there who agrees with me, on some counts or all counts, let's just remember that Katniss Everdeen will eventually fade into the same sunset that Bella Swan has begun to. But when that happens, these themes and ideas will still need to be talked about. And although this movie created nothing more than a shallow rendition of an unoriginal premise, let's do our best to discuss these ideas anyway. They are ideas that we need to write about, talk about, and discuss.

As a writer, I can't help but wonder what these themes would look like outside the realm of YA, and purely within the context of adult fiction. :)