Saturday, March 31, 2012

Playing the Game: How The Hunger Games Combines Adventure and Social Commentary

The Hunger Games (film)The Hunger Games (film)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jumping through hoops. Scratching someone else’s back. Tit for tat. Playing the game.

These are all terms young people face at some point in their lives if they want to succeed in the so-called adult world.  It’s not what you know—it’s who you know. It doesn’t matter how wonderful, talented, unique, and bright you are—you have to get people to like you.

And there is a lot of truth to these sayings. The world is run by imperfect human beings, many of whom got where they are by playing similar games. Yet most of us hope we can succeed on some level by being who we are, not by being forced to become something we’re not.

Enter The Hunger Games with its horrifying version of “playing the game” and what young people must do not only to succeed but to survive: kill each other.

In case you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last few weeks, The Hunger Games is the latest film franchise (based on a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, who also co-wrote the screenplay) to be touted as the heir apparent of Harry Potter. (Succeeding a popular film franchise is, itself, a game, which makes The Hunger Games almost a parody of itself.) Like HP, HG is set in fantastic world in which young people must fight against overwhelming odds to survive and make a positive difference in the world.

But the differences between Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are more striking than the similarities. HG features a female protagonist (Katniss Everdeen). Instead of using a magic wand, she uses a bow and arrows. Instead of being helped along her journey by supportive friends such as Hermione and Ron, Katniss faces 23 youthful competitors whom she must kill or who will kill her. Instead of being guided by caring, powerful adults such as Dumbledore, she’s on her own, her every move observed by voyeuristic, decadent adults who get their jollies by watching kids kill kids.

Harry Potter, meet reality TV.

Of course, there’s much more to The Hunger Games than superficial comparisons to another successful film franchise. Indeed, the dark premise of The Hunger Games seeks to offer social commentary couched in the trappings of a Young Adult adventure story. It succeeds more often than not, and, for writers, it gives us a vivid demonstration of how to play our own game.

Just Another Adventure Story?

The Hunger Games is set in a future America called Panem, ruled by an effete, spoiled and insanely rich upper class. The Have Nots of this world live in 12 impoverished districts. Each district must satisfy the rich overlords’ annual lust for entertainment by offering up a male and female “tribute” between the ages fo 12 and 18 to participate in the Hunger Games, a violent Romanesque blood sport.   

Sixteen-year-old Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, Primrose. Fortunately for Katniss, she has spent her young life sneaking into the forest outside her district and learning to hunt. She can use a bow and arrow (quite expertly, in fact, as she demonstrates to a group of would-be sponsors by shooting an apple out of the gamemaster’s hand). She can climb trees and track animals. These skills put the odds of surviving decidedly in her favor.

And it’s a good thing, too. Katniss finds herself facing not only 23 kids who must kill her but also a forest fire, mosquitoes whose bites cause hallucinations, and ravenous beasts conjured at the gamemaster’s whim. In short, The Hunger Games combines breakneck action and imaginative scenarios which are bound to lure viewers into theaters (and readers into books). 

(Bowing to the sensibilities of its audience (and perhaps to secure a PG-13 rating), the film glides over the violence aimed at children.  Most deaths are shown in quick cuts without blood and gore. Still, it is perfectly clear what is happening, which makes the deaths all the more disturbing.)

Mirror, Mirror . . . on the TV Screen

One of the films previewed before the start of The Hunger Games was Snow White and the Huntsman, a lavish retelling of the familiar Disney classic. Snow White uses a literal mirror as a character who tells the evil queen she’s “the fairest in the land” but forces her to face an unpleasant truth: her beauty will one day be surpassed by that of Snow White.

The mirror used in The Hunger Games is metaphorical but no less “in your face”. Every time the film shows the Capitol and it’s heavily mascaraed citizens clamoring for tributes, I couldn’t help thinking of our present-day immersion in celebrities and the growing divide between the super-rich and rest of us (the 1 percent/99 percent mantra). Corporations and oil companies rule the day, and presidential races appear to be nothing more than contests for rich people who don’t know (or care) what’s it’s like to work hard and still fall behind.

Whether The Hunger Games says anything meaningful about the current state of affairs is debatable. What it does is escalate these twin phenomena of celebrity immersion and income disparity to ridiculous extremes. But are they so ridiculous? In the age of Charlie Sheen, it’s hard to say yes. While people have sat glued to their screens, awaiting the latest mishaps of celebrities du jour, young people have spent the last ten years dying in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, we have “reasons” to justify slaughter, but so do the residents of Panem.

It’s to The Hunger Games’ credit that it doesn’t offer easy solutions (or any solutions, really—this is only the first film in the series). An uprising—evoking the Occupy movements—is shown briefly, but, in the end, Katniss learns to play the game as much as she learns to bend the rules a little (or, rather, to persuade those in charge to bend the rules for her benefit). Likewise, she does not come away with a new mission in life (as one might expect for the hero of an adventure story), but rather with a sense of “What do we do now?”

So it is in life.

This question does not have to be answered in a two-hour movie (nor even in a novel). Having the courage to ask the question is what elevates The Hunger Games and makes us—even writers—more fullly aware of the games we are all playing. 

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