Presentation expresses and explodes political ideology in Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games, a stirring cinematic adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular literary trilogy. The way people dress, talk, and kill says a lot about which section of society they represent, and and the moral associations they cherish or wish to destroy. As a result, facade plays an important role in defining this particular post-apocalyptic world, a not-so-alternate reality where anger and resentment have been brutally repressed beneath unflinching class division. Here, the ruling elite of Panem force the once-rebellious outlying district communities to give “tribute” each year in the form of two teenage contestants for “The Hunger Games”, a battle royale that promises the single survivor riches and fame. It’s a tactic that dispels thoughts of revolt through false-honor.
Contestants are picked during “The Reaping,” a subtly brutal public display of oppressive power and numbing pain that reaffirms the government’s power over the masses. For The Hunger Games, blue-collar sacrifice and subversion come in the form of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a whip-smart teenage hunter from the forested Ozark-looking region District 12 who volunteers to participate in the games in place of her randomly selected 11-year old sister. Shipped off to the shimmering capital of glass and opulence, Katniss is given two weeks of pampering and training before her engagement with mortal combat. It’s an intense time-frame dominated by pomp and circumstance, hype-inducing public displays orchestrated by the bureaucrats and puppetmasters of Panem. Yet Katniss (and her handlers wonderfully played by Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson) consistently subverts the pressures and expectations placed on her by those hoping to bastardize the experience of death for a global audience.
The Hunger Games establishes itself as a film of ideas during its intelligent and scathing middle act, before things get bloody. In one particularly rousing scene Katniss and her male counterpart Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) enter an epic arena riding a chariot, their retardant leather attire doused in flames. Not only does this foreshadow a distrusting relationship between presentation and power, it also shows the importance of fire as a thematic motif. The dynamic sequence comes moments after an equally sobering shot where Katniss stands in front of a wall-size digital display projecting a calm and serene forest. Her back turned to the camera, Katniss scans the crisp image in silence, hoping to experience a momentary recollection of home. We are not privy to her reaction shot, yet for a brief second, Ross calms his incredibly shaky hand-held camera and watches Katniss contemplate the gravity of the situation. Hollywood films rarely linger on characters with this kind of poise, and it’s a stunning example of why The Hunger Games is not your typical blockbuster.
When the games finally arrive, Katniss and her fellow contestants (not including the four sociopaths who’ve been training for the games since they were kids) are unprepared for the carnage that follows. The initial free-for-all that turns into a bloodbath is especially disturbing since Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern show only glimpses of arterial spray, or merely the horrific aftermath. Pitfalls of all kinds await the young gladiators that survive the opening crescendo of violence, from false bottom promises made by “sponsors” to the artificially controlled battlefield where the games take place. Thankfully, Ross never lets the magnetic Lawrence out of his sight, filming her in tight, constricting close-ups that only hint at the bloodletting occurring beyond the frame.
Unfortunately, The Hunger Games reaches a point where romance and melodrama, action and conclusion, however contrived by those running the games, consumes the characters in ill-fitting ways. It’s hard to believe that Katniss, so magnetic with a bow and arrow while cutting through the forest like a wolf, would show pandering vulnerability on a dime when Peeta’s unconvincing whining puts a stranglehold on the story. Is it all a show? Possibly, but even as the film limps home with a lame action climax, it’s hard not to feel that despite its obvious flaws, The Hunger Games is exactly the kind of crafty mainstream entertainment we need at this point. Most of the credit must go to Lawrence, who more than lives up to the promise she showed in her sterling Winter’s Bone performance. But it must also go to Ross, who is smart enough to frame her as a symbol of both social critique and involving drama. Together, they’ve set up a proper template for the famous “girl on fire” to become a full-fledged woman of action.