“You really wanna know how to stay alive? You get people to like you.”
This quote is at the heart of my interpretation of The Hunger Games, a comment on celebrity and politics.
The Hunger Games tells the story of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic America (named Panem) where the citizens live an incredibly nomadic existence. Cities are fragmented and labelled with numbers, which further isolates the residents of Panem. However, realistically, these same districts are geographically and financially discriminative, meaning that the rich live in say, District 4 – usually those who work in the primary or secondary sectors. Lower districts, meanwhile, are labourers or more often, unemployed. Here, in District 12, we find 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) a very interesting female character who I would like to explore.
Readers of my blog may notice a pattern emerging from my fascination with damaged, troubled and jaded women. Katniss is no different, especially as she has taken guardianship over her young sister Prim after the death of their father.
Their father was a miner in the district and was killed alongside other miners in an explosion; no financial compensation was received to the already poor families. Couple this with her now catatonic and traumatised mother, Katniss is an incredibly solemn, though fragile hunter. A skilled one. Foraging for food as the leader of her all-female household, Katniss can shoot and kill an animal (importantly people, too) with her fine archery skills.
All this sets the scene for the premise of the film – the totalitarian government of Panem decides to exert power over its youth by holding annual Hunger Games. This is a bizarre contest which is designed to strike fear into the hearts of children of all ages, where two (one of each gender) children are randomly selected from each district to fight to the death against others from surrounding districts. There can only be one survivor of these Games, and the victor (ironically) becomes a beacon of hope to the rest of Panem, living a life of celebrity and luxury. Oh yes, and the games and all of its events are televised. This is what was most interesting for me (I’ll come back to this).
Fortunately, our beautiful Katniss is not selected to participate in this year’s tournament.
But her little sister is.
Taken from a line of young girls screaming, Prim’s worst nightmare is to be chosen. Katniss “tributes” herself in her sister’s place, which is the Panem-term for volunteering as a replacement; the first time in the Game’s history, no less. Hard to believe that this is the first time someone’s volunteered in place of a loved one. What a wonderful world.
So, Katniss leaves to murder other children to save her own life, and that of her sister’s. I should probably mention the presence of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a boy of Katniss’ age and from the same district. Peeta is chosen as the male component of District 12’s candidates, alongside Katniss. It’s revealed that she and Peeta had a very brief, though tender encounter, where Peeta (a baker) throws a starving Katniss bread. Ominous, you say? I did, too.
I say ominous because it is Peeta that is the crowd-pleaser, charmer and all-round American boy that the Game wants. Katniss, on the other hand, wants to do what she has to do to survive, and get back home. Unaware of the importance ratings and the audience have on their lives, Katniss and Peeta disagree on their initial strategy to “win over” the audience.
Peeta suggests they become a couple, create drama and romance for their adoring fans; Katniss suggests they keep their heads down and kill as many kids as possible. The audience are the life-force for the children fighting in the games – much like “reality” TV today (and reminiscent of Big Brother) – the audience can actively vote for who their favourites are, place bets and alter the course of the games. The other interventionists are the sponsors (what I interpreted as modern-day endorsers), who can literally “drop” supplies to their favourite contestants:
“When you’re in the middle of the games, and you’re starving, or freezing – some water, a knife or even some matches can mean the difference between life and death. And those things only come from sponsors. And to get sponsors, you have to make people like you. And right now, sweetheart – you’re not off to a real good start.”
What I learnt – survival of the fittest doesn’t count when you have friends in high places.
It is interesting that the government should choose to slaughter its children on television. There was a HUGE message here for me, a comment on celebrity and its all-consuming effect it has on both parties; mind-numbing for audiences and soul-destroying for the celebrity. This is displayed cleverly through Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a previous winner of the Games and mentor to Katniss and Peeta, who’s become a drunkard and disillusioned. But, he’s well-dressed, has all the food and drink he could ever want and, of course, he’s rich. What else could a human want?
With all the comparisons of this film to the phenomenally successful Japanese film Battle Royale, I find that The Hunger Games hints to more political, social and cultural messages though they’re just that – hints. Allusions to deep ideas that, with the right focus, have potential to shape and change our perceptions of Capitalist Western society. Celebrity, the need to conform, education and political institutions are all under attack in The Hunger Games. But, I found that it needed much more of a solid argument. Full of allegories and symbols for us to relate to (one particular scene depicted a riot, reminiscent of 2011’s London riots), The Hunger Games can be accused of being too broad in its message of change. Which works both ways:
- Simply highlighting the need for change, and acting as allegories for wider political and social reform, but on the other hand;
- Becomes too broad and all-encompassing. The earlier quote I extracted from the film could work as a comment on the nature of celebrity, but it can also be applied to criticise politicians. But ambiguity can be a great thing.
- Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss
- Interesting plot
- Substance-filled and thought-provoking
- Unexplained, uncharacteristic choices made by Katniss
- Totally feminist to totally…unfeminist.
A successful film (aside from box-office numbers [DRONE]) is about slapping your own interpretations on to it. I loved the juxtapositions between youth and innocence against violence and disorder, and I loved the hype around The Hunger Games being a feminist film. It wasn’t really, I found, which was disappointing and simultaneously predictable for me. A strong, beautiful, damaged young woman needs to decide on the direction of her life, and it ends kind of half-heartedly.