Movies That Hate You (Special): The Hunger Games

Note:  This one is special because it deals with a movie that was seen “live” in theatre.  You may start seeing these more often.

The Story on a Branch:

In a dystopian society, an oppressive government selects conscripts for “The Hunger Games,” a popular tournament in which young children fight to the death.

Review and Analysis:

There are few words on how appallingly dreadful this movie is.  Instead, there are many words on why this movie is appallingly dreadful.  So strap yourselves in and bring some Maalox, like I should have done when I watched this film.

On Story Adaptation:

In many ways, The Hunger Games faces the same problem as Dune; A long series in which character, setting, and world-building take up lots of pages.  When you have this many sheets to look through, you can decide on a story, a moral theme, and make it work.

Or you can simply make the movie a companion to the book, in which you have to fill in the blanks by having the book in front of you.  This, of course, makes the movie itself hard to digest, and turns it into nothing more than a live-action book, only without the actual pages being shown onscreen.

And that is what The Hunger Games is reduced to.

You’ve Seen This Before:

Lots of ink has been spilled about the similarities to movies like The Running Man and Battle Royale.  In terms of the basic themes that The Hunger Games may have been looking to examine, there are some similarities.

However, this movie is much closer to Eragon in many ways.  Mostly, however, it is because The Hunger Games makes the same unforced mistakes and errors that Eragon does.

The Protagonist:

The biggest reason why this movie fails is because of the main character, Katniss Everdeen.  Not only is the main character a passive main character, she is also a “reactive” passive main character.  In other words, things happen around Katniss, she then responds, and that response is not one of action on her part.  When you have a main character that is portrayed in such a manner, the end result is a main character who is often bailed out or propped up by secondary characters.

For a protagonist to work, they must find a way to grow.  And in order for the Protagonist to grow, there needs to be both a start and end point for said character.  Katniss takes few actions and she carries the same attitude with her from start to finish, so we witness no growth of her as a character personally.  Any expertise she has, including her archery, is implied.  In fact, her first hunt that we watch is that of a deer in the forest.  Just like in Eragon, only this one is in the daytime.  Should I also point out that Katniss missed her target because of distraction like Eragon did with his?

Sadly, you see more activity and agency with Peeta than you do with Katniss.  Even sadder, Peeta seems to fit the classic Hero Protagonist mold in the movie than Katniss does, considering that he does more to insure his survival in the Hunger Games battles despite his lack of battle skills.  He also grows more as a character than Katniss does.

Finally, it looks as if Katniss was supposed to represent someone who is supposed to “change” the system by not supporting the expected outcome.  But because there is no growth by Katniss in any direction, it feels like it just comes completely out of left field.

So, Who’s the Bad Guy?

This is the next problem with The Hunger Games.  The “Bad Guy” is left undefined.  Instead, as an audience member, you have to figure out which “Bad Guy” is the one you have to root against.  For this movie, you are to settle on one of three choices:

  • Cato, who becomes the leader of an alliance of contestants within the games.  We are to root against him because he does what all “evil” characters do, and that is to kill without a second thought;
  • Seneca Crane, who produces the actual Hunger Games as the Head Gamemaker.  We are to root against him because he is the one who “puts the Hero (Katniss) in danger” without batting an eyelash; AND
  • President Snow, who rules the nation in which they all live in.  We are to root against him because he wants to stay in power by all means at his disposal – except using actual soldiers to kill people, that is.

The problem, however, is that no matter who you choose, the answer is wrong.  You see this in instances where an attempt to criticize or examine society is being offered, as it seems to be the case with this movie.  However, because there is no actual examination or criticism of the world in which they all live in, Hunger Games fails on the actual commentary.

And the reason why there is no real critique is because the movie spends too much time on on giving us “Good Members” of the Evil Society.  These are the people who assist Katniss (and Peeta, to a lesser extent) survive the Hunger Games.  Unfortunately, in doing so, the debate over the existence of the Hunger Games, and the morality of said existence, is thrown away.  It also has the effect of reducing the “evil” of the three people listed above, because the society in which they inhabit is not critiqued to be considered evil and amoral.

The World in Which They Live:

Costuming is important, in that your world’s costumes should reflect what you are trying to show.  Costuming a dystopian society, however, is not as easy as it may seem, especially if you are looking to show various castes within the society.  Where Hunger Games failed in this respect is in the simplest problem:  Clean Threads and “Neat” Clothes.  The District Dwellers clothing, while not as opulent as the citizens of the Capital City, is still something that does not give the feel of “Downtrodden, Oppressed People” when you look at them.  There is no sense of lacking in resources when you see them.

A better example of 2-tier society costuming comes from the movie “Glory,” in which you see the stark difference in the clothing between the slaves and the Aristocracy that owns the slaves, even as some of them fight on the same side of the war.

A Protagonist That Does Nothing:

Katniss is never seen making her own choices in the movie.

She does not volunteer for the Games until her little sister (who fulfills the trope of Cute, Helpless, Pure, and Virginal) is chosen.

She never decides on how she planned to survive in the games.  She had to be prodded by Haymitch, Cinna, and others because she too was playing a trope – The Tomboy Who Has to Be Convinced that She is a…Pretty Princess.  While she stumbled through this, it takes Peeta, having already adapted to the environment, to help her through.

The training montages don’t feature Katniss doing anything.  She offers advice to Peeta once…and that’s it.

She has to be advised by Haymitch on what to do while in the Games.  Peeta immediately joined in an alliance with Cato – and manages to save Katniss at least once (by convincing the gang to wait before trying to kill her).  It takes Rue pointing out the Hornet’s Nest Nest of Tracker Jackers that is a branch away from where she was sleeping in the same tree before Katniss chops the branch down.

Katniss is saved by Angry Black Man Thresh because he saw Katniss’ gesture to Rue earlier (Black People Have to Stick Together, according to Hollywood).

It is offered that Katniss somehow offers “Hope.”  And we are told that it is because Katniss is special.  Unfortunately, that specialness is because other people say that she is “special,” not because of her own talents.  None of the things in which Katniss is supposed to highlight these special talents were through Katniss’ efforts; they were more because of Cinna’s fashion sense, Haymitch’s advice, and Peeta’s own efforts to create his storyline for survival.  Katniss is then bailed out during the games by other players.

The riot in Rue’s district is another matter.  The movie attempts to paint the spark of said riot with Katniss’ gesture of giving Rue a “burial,” but looking at the demeanor of the inhabitants of Rue’s district (lots of people of color, by the way), it could be argued that it was Rue’s death in-and-of-itself that was the actual trigger.

The Final Battle:

If your story’s moral compass is not clear, or if your story’s theme isn’t well written, it shows itself front-and-center during the movie’s Final Battle.  In Hunger Games, it manifests itself as Katniss and Peeta fighting off the “Muttations,” which somehow leads to them fighting Cato on the platform at the same time.  The battle ends with Cato falling off the platform and being torn apart by the Muttations, but not before Katniss shoots Cato with another arrow – supposedly to make his death quick, but it comes off as being rather pointless.

Part of the reason why Katniss/Peeta vs. Cato does not work is because we don’t spend much time with Cato or the group he gathers, except for when we’re supposed to root against him because he does things like snap the neck of a flunky (who, by the way, was another player in the Games) when that flunky failed to stop Katniss from blowing up their food.  The muddled character business continues when Cato gives his speech (while he’s got a knife at Peeta’s neck, by the way) on him being “just another pawn” in the Games, which was supposed to act as a reminder on the moral theme of the movie.

But it would be the second part of the “Final Battle” that shows how both the movie and the main character of Katniss fails.  After Cato’s death, Seneca announces that the modified rules (2 winners only if they are from the same district) have been revoked.  Peeta, at that point, made his decision, and that was to sacrifice himself for Katniss.  Katniss offers that they should go both attempt suicide to “defy the spectacle” the gamesmaster was making.  Seneca stops them and declares them both “the winner.”  This makes President Snow mad and has Seneca commit suicide because of it.

The problem, however, is that nothing is lost with Katniss’ death.  District 12 showed no real allegiance to Katniss or Peeta.  The Games themselves would continue, because none of the Districts showed any real measurable resistance to the Capital City.  Outside of the District Rue lived in, the others were still cheering on their own competitors.  As such, Katniss’ “kind act” would simply be forgotten before the next Games – because Katniss’ act isn’t portrayed as being inspiring to rise against a system (Rue’s district doesn’t count, as it is Rue’s own death that sparks it).  The Districts would still be separated.  And, in death, a good story-teller, having already introduced the star-crossed lovers, would have had a perfect Romeo & Juliet Double-Sacrifice had Katniss and Peeta actually gone through with it.  And, in “death” both lovers would have been declared posthumous winners.  After which, a special tournament could be called and everyone moves on.

Amorphous Story, Amorphous Goal:

Just how muddled is the story?

Pick a scene from the movie.  Any scene.

Now, if you can, remove it.

Does anything really change in how the movie can be interpreted?

What changes if President Snow doesn’t appear at all?  Does this mean that the Hunger Games themselves aren’t being used as behavioral manipulation by the Capital City dwellers?

What if Katniss was chosen at first instead Primrose (AGGHHH! THE NAMES!!!!)?  In other words, what if we never see the ceremony (which takes up far too much time) to choose the Tributes?  The movie wanted to make a huge deal out of Katniss volunteering for the Hunger Games, but the movie never really tells us why this is really such a big deal.

What changes if we don’t see the training montages?  None of which ever feature Katniss actually training?  Or the game control room sequences?  Or the Woody Harrelson scenes?

The answer to all of these, unfortunately, is nothing that would make the viewer feel that something important was not shown beforehand.

The Reality Show Problem:

The Hunger Games would like to believe that it has its roots in Reality Shows like Survivor, Dancing with the Stars, and The Bachelor/Bachelorette, in which contestants are paraded for the enjoyment of the audience.

In reality, however, the Hunger Games themselves play more like Kid Nation than any of the other shows.  And that is why The Hunger Games never gains traction.

Instead, The Hunger Games missed on the one sporting event that the Hunger Games actually emulates.  That game is:

The Super Bowl.

When you think about the pageantry, the spectacle before the game, the violence during the game, the “story” before, during, and the after the game, and how the winners are regarded, you would be hard-pressed to find another single sporting event that matches the Hunger Games in this regard.

But social commentary is missed when you try to be bull-headed about the point you’re trying to make.

In Conclusion:

The Hunger Games shows why you should never let novelists become screenwriters.  What this movie attempts to do is portray nuance, where the details are what you have to look at in order to interpret differences between what the movie considers as being “good” and “evil.”  Additionally, because the movie itself never bothers with any actual commentary, it is left to the viewer to fill in the blanks, which is never a good idea.  Add a protagonist who does next to nothing, and you are left with 2 hours and 22 minutes of a nebulous blob of movie material strung together with no coherency.

The Hunger Games tries to take itself seriously, and spends much of its time throwing Black and White paint all over the canvass to convince the audience that it is social commentary.  At the same time, it wants us to root for Katniss – for what, I’m not sure – as she is bailed out by everyone else.

In other words, feed The Hunger Games with a hamburger and pass.

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3 Responses to Movies That Hate You (Special): The Hunger Games

  1. jarronnelums says:

    “In other words, feed The Hunger Games with a hamburger and pass.”
    Ummm Hamburger and pass.
    I didn’t like the movie because it was another White people story.

  2. David says:

    I think you came to this movie looking for things not to like about the story, and presupposing Suzanne Collins’s intentions. An example: “she too was playing a trope – The Tomboy Who Has to Be Convinced that She is a…Pretty Princess”

    I think you were missing an important thematic point in movie, more strongly stated in the novels: that image, as created and controlled through media, is a powerful tool for manipulating the masses. It’s not that Katniss Everdeen the Tomboy has to be convinced she is a princess, it’s that the Games deliberately create a glamorous image of Katniss to sell to the people of the Capitol. That Katniss comes to be wrapped up in this image, at least to some extent, speaks to the power that image holds, even over self-image.

    This battle for identity, between Katniss the genuine 16-year-old girl and concocted “girl on fire” personas created for her, form one of the central conflicts, and perhaps the principal intra-personal conflict, in the remainder of the trilogy. Is Katniss going to be true to her own self-image, or is she going to be the “Mockingjay?”

    To call Katniss, who intervenes on behalf of her sister, who bitch-slaps Haymitch into helping her and Peeta, who shoots an arrow at the game makers to get their attention, who violently attacks Peeta when suddenly, without her consent and with no warning, she is drawn into Peeta’s “star-crossed lovers” concoction, who devises plans while in the Arena and carries them through, who puts her own life on the line to tend to her sick friend… to call Katniss “passive” and “reactive” is going a bit far. She is, for a fair amount of the film, a 16-year-old child being prepared to be killed for the enjoyment of an audience, and reacts with the blunt affect one would expect of the condemned. But I would not confuse this with passivity.

    When I saw this film, I said, FINALLY, a rare thing: a strong female protagonist whose heroic attributes or significance aren’t derived from her biological femininity or romantic interest (with apologies to Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor).

    I don’t think this movie, and the novels, are really about social commentary. This is young adult lit, and YA themes involve the issues adolescents face as they become adults. Such as: when to stop merely receiving wisdom and when to start seeking it, when to stop merely obeying authority and when to start questioning it, leaving behind childish infatuation for mature romantic relationships, and when to develop an adult identity and assert that identity against the expectations of others.

    Many of these sorts of themes are there, and expressed well. To malign the movie out of an expectation of social commentary unfulfilled is not entirely fair.

    The story aside, the cinematography, editing, and pacing, especially during the Arena portion of the film, were excellent. After having watched wreck after wreck of action films lately, it’s refreshing to see some truly adept filmmaking. A long amount of tension in which I have my eyes glued to the screen and fingers dug into the seat, followed by a satisfying payoff? What a novel concept!

  3. David says:

    One more note, on Rue and Thresh:

    There’s some weird race stuff going on in Panem, to be sure. As of Hunger Games we’ve seen:
    District 12: Anglo-Scots coal miners
    District 11: African-American forced agricultural laborers

    Later on we’re going to meet:
    District 4: Irish fishermen
    District 3: East/South Asian electronics workers (?!)

    So admittedly, this is setting up for disaster, but I thought Rue and Thresh were handled well. Rue, far from being a device to advance the plot, has active agency of her own. She helps Katniss devise and execute the plan to blow up the food, and while she is killed, she’s killed while aiding her ally, and her death serves a purpose in the movie other than to discard her when she’s no longer convenient. Remember also that it’s part of the rules of the movie that everyone must die or be a victor.

    The corny thing about Rue is that she serves as a surrogate for Prim – in establishing how Katniss cares for an “adopted” sibling the audience gains insight into the relationship between Katniss and Primrose that we never see on the screen. If Rue is a plot device, this is what she’s there to do.

    Thresh’s anger is justified, understandable, and I couldn’t see it being any different if his character was white. In fact, if he weren’t angry at Rue’s death, I would think him heartless. But he avenges his friend and district comrade, and spares the life of the girl who showed her kindness in life and honor in death. Angry Black Man? Sure, if you want to read that into it.

    There may be racefails in the sequels, especially if District 3 is full of Harold and Kumar types. But that remains to be seen.

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