The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Hunger Games - an alternate Alternate Take

Written by James Zborowski.

Photo from the article NOTE: This is the site's third run at The Hunger Games. Read our short review and original Alternate Take.


The Hunger Games (2012) creates an alternative world and invites us to consider what that world can tell us about our own. But how does it create that world? How does its allegory work; how do we get from what we are shown to what we think we are being told? And is there a tension, or even a contradiction, between the things that the film invites its viewers to despise and to take delight in? In this alternate Alternate Take, I will begin by addressing the first question, and then move on to the third; I will be engaging with the second question during both discussions.

Building a world from details

One of the central pleasures of many films (and television programmes) that show us an imagined future (or past) is their attention to detail in the creation of an alternative world. In the best of these films (Children of Men [2006] would be one example), details are precisely deployed to open a window upon, and make tangible, the world’s broader and deeper realities.

The Hunger Games is full of examples of this strategy. To take just one: Early in the film, Katniss and Peeta, the two ‘Tributes’ from ‘District 12’ who will be participating in the 74th annual ‘Hunger Games’ travel to the Capitol by train. Up to this point, Katniss, Peeta and viewer alike have been largely immersed in the poverty of District 12 - reminiscent, as many reviewers have noted, of the images of Depression American captured by Dorothea Lange and other members of the photographic unit of the Farm Security Administration. We have learned that to subsist, Katniss hunts squirrels with a bow and arrow. And although Peeta, a baker’s son, will later put to good use the skills he tells Katniss he acquired decorating cakes, whilst we are in District 12 the most-manufactured food product we see is a simple loaf of bread. So when Katniss and Peeta board the train to another world and we, the viewers, see a selection of pastries and confectionery fit to grace the window of a central Parisian patisserie, we have been given the context to see in those products something more than mere ‘expense’. No less than the high speed train, which makes distance and time less worrisome (a feat common to most technology, and central to the power of those who possess it), the variety of sweet treats that sit on display, waiting to be eaten or, just as likely, discarded, are an index of an advanced economy - and a world away from the plain loaves that Peeta produces in batches (and, if they are not bought, tosses to his pigs - waste not, want not).

An advanced economy produces things that are complex (‘technology’), but it also produces things that are useless - or at least, some distance from the immediate needs of survival. The further one is from the realm of necessity, the more likely it is that one’s tastes, in food and other things, are to become aestheticised, or, one might say, decadent. ‘Decadence’ is writ large in the elaborate clothes and coiffures (and, in one central case, the exquisitely detailed facial hair) of those members of the Capitol who present or attend the ‘hunger games’ (leading Melissa Anderson to make the interesting assertion in her Village Voice review that the Capitol’s brand of decadence is ‘coded as unmistakably gay’) - and once again, the point is underlined by the contrasts with the utilitarian clothing of the inhabitants of District 12. (If the reference point for the latter is, as mentioned, Depression America, then that for the former includes elements of France on the cusp of revolution - Marie Antoinette’s France, one might say - and the stylisation of Japanese Kabuki costume and the colour scheme of anime. These varied points of reference might serve to caution the viewer against cashing out the allegory with exclusive reference to a particular, contemporary society.) It is noteworthy that The Hunger Games gives almost equal emphasis in its marvellous production design to both the complex/‘advanced’ and the useless, and displays an awareness of them both as indices of power.

Complicity or complexity?

A sticking point for some reviewers of The Hunger Games is the film’s simultaneous invitations to the viewer to critique what the ‘hunger games’ represents and to be enthralled by the very same event. Lauren Jade Thompson’s claim in her review on this site can furnish us with an example: ‘In the novel we are asked to loathe the braying elite of The Capitol who relish in the excitement of the games, detached from the individual children and ever-hungry for the next spectacular battle. Watching these events play out in a film, however, we surely become complicit in this activity.’ This requires some unpicking. I want to approach the issue from two angles. First, I want to consider the question of the nature of our engagement with film fiction, and then the specifics of this instance of that category.

Let us begin with a statement of the obvious: my ethical responsibilities towards fictional characters are not the same as my ethical responsibilities towards other humans in my world. If I see a stranger crying on a bench as I walk past, it would be appropriate for me to stop and see if there is anything I can do; it would be inappropriate for me to laugh at them or to contemplate (for too long at least!) what the weather or the way they are sitting add to my aesthetic appreciation of their sadness. If I see a stranger crying on a bench in a fiction film, the opposite is true. It would be ludicrous for me to offer help, and it may well be appropriate for me to treat the scene as an instance of humour, or to contemplate its mise-en-scène. So far, so obvious. Moving on to violence, the question of the ethics of representation gets trickier. Nevertheless, I think it’s still important to at least begin by being clear and explicit about the different meanings of violence for members of a film’s world and observers of it. We are, surely, not wholly complicit in the activity of The Capitol’s elite. They are watching real children and adolescents, members of their world, get slaughtered. We are watching real children and adolescents, members of our world, depict, along with the other filmmakers, the slaughter of the children and adolescents of another, fictional world. We know that those members of our world were not killed in the process of the creation of the fiction. So we can exonerate the film from charges of absolute complicity with the Capitol, even if we perhaps ought to add does not represent an achievement of The Hunger Games, but is rather a consequence of the medium.

But of course, questions remain. In the case of The Hunger Games, the question that one must come back to is whether its critique of what it depicts can be reconciled with the pleasures it offers the viewer, even if one concedes that our pleasures and those of the fictional spectators of the hunger games can only overlap partly rather than wholly. This calls for a closer examination of two related questions: How do violence and spectacle function in The Hunger Games? What is the nature of our alignments/allegiances with the film’s characters?

Given its subject matter, the onscreen gore quotient in The Hunger Games is surprisingly low. This can be explained in part by a desire to achieve a classification that allows younger adolescents to buy tickets for the movie, but it is a fact that has aesthetic consequences. Some of the film’s plot devices rely upon bodily injury, but it is not much of a film about endurance, or the frailty or needs of the human body (this, I understand from some reviewers, separates the film from the novel). Violence is more a given of the film than an element it revels in. After around half of the Tributes are felled in an initial skirmish - rendered in fleeting glimpses - there is much more of a focus on cat-and-mouse than slice-and-dice. The ‘kills’ we see tend to be clean - a single and relatively discreet entry wound to the chest. And as we and the participants have been forewarned, some deaths come from the ‘natural’ world (poisonous berries) rather than combat.

How are the Tributes’ deaths represented to the audiences in the districts? The film does not allow us to answer this question confidently. We only receive glimpses of what is broadcast from the Capitol once the games are underway. It is legitimate, I think, to point to this as an aspect of the film which would have benefited from greater development, though against this we ought to at least note that the film as it stands is over two hours long and will have had to compress what is already in the novel; the fact that it is narrated by Katniss means that how district audiences saw events is presumably (I have not read the book) not a large part of the source material.

While the exclusion of the material broadcast to the districts means that onscreen violence - even violence at a further remove, filtered through another medium - remains low, it might be objected that this prevents the film from exhibiting a critical perspective on the hunger games by using onscreen audiences to drive a wedge between the film viewers and the primary spectacle. I would want to argue, however, that the film, especially in its early passages, does indeed offer a critique and a relatively sophisticated understanding of spectacle, and that this critique remains relevant through to the film’s conclusion.

Although we might wish for more development in this regard, The Hunger Games economically dramatises (at least) two sets of audiences and their differing orientations to the games. First, there is the Capitol audience. They are represented by the well-coiffed people we see sitting in the studio when master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman (brilliantly played by Stanley Tucci) interviews the Tributes. This audience laughs at his jokes, and admires the pluck and sportingness of the underdog participants. Alongside this audience we can place those with an economic interest in the games. We momentarily glimpse a large display board carrying odds for each Tribute, prompting us to imagine an almost inevitable accompaniment to the games - betting upon them. And then there are ‘sponsors’. As former hunger games winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) tells Katniss, the key to survival is to ‘make people like you’. At crucial junctures, these sponsors intervene by parachuting in medical supplies to Katniss and Peeta.

For the audiences in the districts, on the other hand, the hunger games are not a leisure activity or a pleasure. Rather, their participation is a mixture of the compulsive and the compulsory. The representatives of the Capitol roll into town, and set up their giant image and sound reproduction technology. District 12’s inhabitants gather to see who will be selected as a ‘Tribute’, but they withhold their consent to the extent of refusing to applaud during the proceedings, even when master of ceremonies Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) gives them a lead to follow. The sense is clearly of a spectacle being imposed upon an unwilling populace. The technological paraphernalia that underpins it is merely the most proximate and tangible instance of the power relationship it represents: the inhabitants can listen glumly, and participate reluctantly, but listen and participate they must. (We might also note that the analogies with reality TV that some reviewers have adduced are short-circuited - or at least troubled - by the fact that most of the district viewing we see takes place in the equivalent of a town square rather than in the home. What we are seeing is not public spectacle for private entertainment. The viewing too is, predominantly, public, and indeed, the whole model of publicness in The Hunger Games is different from our own. To be glib, it is more Gladiator [2000] than Big Brother.)

Given its fundamental premises, I would say that The Hunger Games does at least as much as one could reasonably expect to minimise its participation in the spectacle its story-world contains, and to articulate a critical understanding of spectacle and the power relations that underpin it. As much as it is a spectacular film, it is a film about spectacle.

The personal and the political

If we are complicit - or to put it in more common terminology, if we identify - with anyone in the film, it is with Katniss. Although she is not present in every scene, she is the character around whom the narrative is organised. But this might be seen to create its own problems. Even if we are not aligned with the representatives of the Capitol, does not our alignment with an individual character make impossible a detached critique of what the film represents? I do not think so, because I do not believe that one has to make an absolute choice between sympathy and detachment. One can recognise the impersonal determinants of an individual’s situation and still become ‘caught up’ in that situation. Being analytical is not the same as being inhuman.

But again, I do not want to dismiss this problem too cursorily. There is a brilliant scene in the middle of the film where, having been chased up a tree by a group of other ‘Tributes’ who have formed a pack in order to pick off the others, Katniss saws through a bough with the intent of dropping a hive full of genetically modified lethal wasps onto the others sleeping below. As I watched Katniss saw and get stung, I was given time to ponder, ‘What do I want to happen, and why?’ My alignment and allegiance with Katniss, the fact that she was outnumbered, and that given a chance the pack would kill her, all fed into and gave some legitimacy to my desire that, on balance, she drop the angry swarm onto her pursuers, perhaps causing their deaths. But is this a legitimate and ethical response? And is this a question that the film prompted or that I was imposing on it? I do not think closer analysis of the sequence alone could answer these questions. I do think, however, that they might be answered in the film’s favour if we turn our attention to a more developed strand, that of the romance between Katniss and Peeta.

During the rally in the Capitol where Katniss and Peeta are first displayed to the gathered crowds and the games’ other audiences, Peeta grabs Katniss’s hand, and lifts their arms up into the air. At first, Peeta’s gesture and his subsequent disclosure of a longstanding crush upon Katniss during his interview with Caesar appear to be nothing more than ploys designed to increase his/their chances of survival. We are later left with little room to doubt the sincerity of Peeta’s emotions (he lovingly recounts to Katniss detailed memories of her appearance when they were younger). I do not think we can say the same of Katniss. Whilst this might be seen as a failure of dramatic realisation - a lack of screen ‘chemistry’ between the two principals as they gradually come together - it seems to me to be a deliberate part of the film’s architecture. Katniss is shown to have taken on board Haymitch’s advice about courting favour with the audience, and it is only after she receives from a sponsor food accompanied by a note ‘You call that a kiss?’ that she steps up her ardour.

In the film’s climactic moment, Katniss and Peeta, the two surviving Tributes, having been told that they may both win the hunger games, are told that the rule has been revoked and that one must kill the other. Peeta tells Katniss to kill him. Katniss’s response is to persuade Peeta that they should both eat poisonous berries at the same time. This would be a fitting culmination to the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ narrative that the two have been slotted into. However, this is not what Katniss emphasises. She sells it to Peeta and to herself as a way of getting one over on the game masters. To refuse victory, riches and ‘honour’ by sacrificing one’s own life and body is a powerful way of withholding consent. The power of such a gesture is demonstrated by the snap decision of the game masters to re-reverse the rules and allow there to be two winners. But the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ narrative, in debased form, must be stuck to. If people make sacrifices because of romantic love, then that can be recuperated, but if it is a more straightforwardly political gesture, that would be much a more dangerous thing to permit. Love’s triumph, and not a principled refusal of the imposed ideology of competition and divide and rule, is what the dual victory must be made to mean. To use the language common to an earlier moment of film theory, romantic love becomes the game masters’ ‘ideological emergency exit’.

But not that of the film makers. Katniss’s heroism might be defined as stoicism mixed with compassion (and Lawrence’s outstanding performance - the one thing that almost all reviewers are willing to praise - is crucial to the creation of this impression). When she is leaving District 12, Katniss counsels in her mother not tears but sustained care for her other daughter. When Katniss is tending to Peeta’s wounds and when the two return, ‘victorious’, to the district, we see a bond that is the result not primarily of romantic love but of something closer to what we might call fraternity: Katniss recognises Peeta not primarily as a potential romantic partner but as a fellow human. And at the end of the film, when Peeta, as he did at the rally, clasps Katniss’s hand, and the camera follows it upwards to reveal the approval of the crowd gathered below, we understand the gesture to be not (only) personal and romantic, but (also) political, symbolic, and complex. This is a fitting end to a film which marries an eye for detail with a broad vision, and does so with an intelligence that is consistently impressive.

This article was published on April 27, 2012.

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