I very much enjoyed “The Hunger Games,” which is a worthy successor to “Harry Potter” as a young adult franchise with appeal to grownups. Based on the first of three books written by Suzanne Collins, it is already a huge hit at the box office and will spawn sequels that will be released in the summer or Christmas movies seasons, rather than the spring doldrums. Featuring traditional themes from literature and movies, “The Hunger Games” also offers a biting critique of reality television.
The plot is as follows (MASSIVE SPOILERS). Reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, a 1984-style totalitarian society holds a drawing each year to select a young boy and girl from each of their 12 governing districts to participate in a competition against each other. Called the Hunger Games, it resembles the Triwizard Tournament from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”—only it is to the death. The story then follows Katness Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeka Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who have been chosen to represent District 12, as they participate in the competition. The concept of the 12 districts is very familiar, echoing “Battlestar Galactica’s” 12 colonies, and is likely influenced by the biblical notion of the 12 tribes of Israel (If you don’t remember your Torah or Old Testament, just listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”).
The “Hunger Games” features elements of several reality television shows and portrays government officials aiming to promote the best story line possible at whatever cost. The implicit comparison of agents of a dictatorial regime with television executives is quite harsh. With echoes of “Project Runway,” consultants dress up contestants to look attractive in an Olympic-style opening ceremony with chariots and other Roman overtones. Indeed, the whole competition seems to revolve around giving the oppressed populace, “breads and circuses” to distract them from their plight, as the old Roman Empire did (one character is even named Caesar).
Once the competition begins, participants make alliances a la “Survivor” with various contestants working together against other groups and individuals. With the whole society watching, participants need to earn the favor of the viewers, like on “American Idol,” in order to get help from the audience to combat injuries and other obstacles. The characters resemble their counterparts from other films depicting teenage life going back to the John Hughes movies of the 1980s, as our hero and heroine are outsiders from a poorer district. Meanwhile, their most vicious competitors hail from a wealthier district where, in an echo of the Cold War-era East German sports machine, some are trained from birth to compete.
In order to frustrate the growing popularity of Everdeen, whose success is spawning dissent in the poorer districts, the government changes the rules of the game to allow two competitors to win, as long as they are both from the same district. After our heroes, who have developed a romantic attachment, join together to successfully outlast the others, officials change the rules back. Rather than try to kill each other, Everdeen and Mellark decide to take poison, a la Romeo and Juliet, but the government declares them both winners before they can carry out their plan.
Their chief handler (Woody Harrelson) warns them that this act of defiance may have consequences for them, saying they must sell the story of their romance to the state. Everdeen and Mellark appear as guests on a talk show for a postmortem reminiscent of “The Bachelor” to discuss how much they care about each other. The ground is then laid for a sequel, as the Kim Jong-Il-like “Great Leader,” played by Donald Sutherland, appears displeased at the reception the victors receive upon their homecoming to District 12.
I have written about the emergence of a lighter feel to action movies as memories of 9/11 fade, but the “Hunger Games” contradicts this trend. Indeed, the film’s plot resembles the darker themes of the latter “Harry Potter” movies. It may be that the movie reflects the book, which was published in 2008 and was developed in closer proximity to the tragedy of 9/11 (Collins cites the Iraq War as a major influence). Furthermore, a friend of mine suggested that one of the legacies of 9/11 might be that books for young adults now feature darker and more mature themes. In any case, I look forward to the next movie in the series, though it is likely I will have read the books by then anyway.