THE HUNGER GAMES' reign at the box office is over, at least until sequel Catching Fire drops on its ironclad release date of Thanksgiving 2013, but the behind-the-scenes games are in full swing. Studio Lionsgate is moving into casting, having replaced director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence; Ross also won't have input on the script as he did with the first film, as it's being handled by Slumdog Millionaire writer Simon Beaufoy. Many in Hunger Games fandom griped about these decisions, but there's an upside: Catching Fire could be better than The Hunger Games.
Try saying that to a teenager — you'll get smacked. The people who criticize The Hunger Games film are few, far between, and old. They include Jeffrey Wells, who writes "the massive success of The Hunger Games is a confirmation of a kind of cultural vapidity;" David Denby, who calls the film "pretty much a disaster;" and Joe Morgenstern, who says it's "benumbing." These contrarians take the film to task for its camerawork, which leans heavily on hand-held shots even when two characters are just talking, and for a few plausibility issues that also irked me — but there is a basic issue in The Hunger Games that critics likely overlooked because they saw it at screenings instead of with the public. Unlike the book, the film fails to challenge its bloodthirsty audience.
I saw The Hunger Games on its first day of release, when it made $68M across America. I noticed in my theater that the audience was split into two camps. The people who had read the books (mostly teenage girls) watched as readers. They eagerly anticipated any plot point from The Hunger Games novel, and when that point was dutifully delivered, they clutched one another with glee.
There's nothing wrong with that. I read the novel too and found it brilliantly conceived, if sometimes bluntly executed. (For example, while Wells gets on the movie for allowing Katniss Everdeen to climb trees like a "chimpmunk," here are some lines from the book: "I pick my tree carefully.", "I pick a high tree and begin to climb.", "I climb dangerously high in to a tree...") Suzanne Collins is like Philip K. Dick: on a sentence-by-sentence level you can quibble with her, but she possesses mastery of concept.
The idea that reality television and government control will merge in the future to create something as off-putting and sexy as the Hunger Games is genius. Reading the book brings up great questions about celebrity (in a society of illusion, does truth make you famous?), identity (am I me, or am the "me" who people see on their screens?), and media blood-lust (who killed Davey Moore?).
The people in my audience who hadn't read the books didn't care about these questions. They were mostly teenage boys and they were there for two reasons: to see people get killed and to prove they were cool.
Great, I thought. These are precisely the kids who should see this film. It's going to make them think.
The movie lost me five minutes in, when Katniss hunts a deer. It's a great scene: She spots the deer; we get an extreme close-up of the deer's twitching nose; the deer darts off. She sighs and crumples a leaf, letting it blow in the wind. Ah, so the deer smelled her. Let's see what she does. She goes downwind, gets ready to shoot, but is interrupted by Gale. "That was the first deer I've seen in a year!" she complains.
Wait a minute — a year? She wasn't acting like it was the first deer she'd seen in a year. She didn't flinch or raise an eyebrow or anything. Come to think of it, why would deer be rare in District 12? I was trying to remember from the book. Are they all hunted out? That must be it, and people are starving, only we don't see anybody starving. No one in The Hunger Games' District 12 looks malnourished — an observation adherents are likely to dismiss as "bodysnarking." We see Katniss huddling outside of a bread store in the rain, but, once she gets reaped, she seems as nonchalant about the food spreads that are suddenly available to her as she did about that deer. And she has very nice boots.
These things might not have bothered me if the teenagers around me were tweeting quietly. But they were snickering, making fun of Jennifer Lawrence's facial expressions, and making loud comparisons to Twilight.
It's fine, I thought. They'll see when the Games start. This is deeper than Twilight!
Only now my floodgates were open. I started asking questions. Like, how come the Capitol sends a flying ship to District 12 for the reaping, but then the tributes leave by train? (In the book, the ship is chasing runaways, but there aren't any runways in the film.) And how come, once they're in that train, they don't pounce on the food? And after the tributes are told, "Most of you will die of exposure," why don't any of them die of exposure? And did Lenny Kravitz just tell the producers, Look, I'm gonna be Lenny Kravitz with a dash of gold eyeliner and that's it?
There is a wonderful moment in the film, where Katniss sees herself as she's "on fire," riding in a chariot with Peeta, and she looks confused. Who is that? she seems to ask her own face hanging on a banner. This is the kind of self-evaluative moment that enlivened The Hunger Games novel, where Katniss regrets letting a boy get killed "[j]ust like I was watching the Games." The indictment of media image-making in the book is just as important as the warning against violent entertainment; after all, image-making is what real teenagers do when they post to Instagram. Reading The Hunger Games might even spur young people to question the extent to which they perpetuate constructed identities, or the wisdom of making freak-porn like Hoarders the center of their entertainment universes. But The Hunger Games film makes the audience question nothing about itself.
Here's why: the Hunger Games are a reality television show. They are watched by millions across Panem — not just in the Capitol full of evil elites, but in all the districts. Yet when the movie cuts away to show people in those districts watching the Games, are they cheering? No! They look like they're in church. So why are they watching? Watching in the books is mandatory (which never made sense to me, because it seems like a big waste of resources to stage the Hunger Games when you have to force people to see them), but in the movie, Gale is shown refusing to watch as the Games begin. In a world where you can choose not to watch, why would you watch? To be entertained.
The only way The Hunger Games works as art is if it shows ordinary people being entertained by death. Then it forces the audience to look at itself. The movie is incredibly violent — I don't know how it got a PG-13 — and the only time the teen boys around me shut up was when kids were getting killed. They were supposed to empathize with the districts, but they were more like the grotesques in the Capitol — eager for death.
Part of this is inevitable in the transition from book to film. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the dawn of film meant "seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power." Nuances of self-invention and media overload will always pale in comparison to the gross power of seeing a kid get eaten by a mutant dog.
But still. The Hunger Games novel reads as an effective caution against a death-match arena reality show. The film feels more like proof of concept. Here's hoping the audience is challenged more in Catching Fire.
Portions of this essay first appeared in The Girl Who Was on Fire — Movie Edition from Smart Pop Books.