Review originally published in S&S May 2012
Synopsis: The future. Every year, the twelve Districts of totalitarian Panem must select an adolescent boy and girl by ballot for the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death. When her beloved younger sister Primrose is chosen, skilled archer Katniss volunteers to take her place, securing a promise from hunting partner Gale to look after her family. Joined by baker’s son Peeta, Katniss is taken to the Capitol, and trained by mentor (and past winner) Haymitch, who stresses the need to become popular with viewers and potential sponsors. Peeta declares his love for Katniss in a broadcast interview, with Haymitch’s approval.
In the woodland arena, Katniss evades the initial bloodbath. Stuck up a tree, with an alliance of five (including Peeta) waiting to kill her below, she drops a nest of deadly, genetically altered wasps on her pursuers, and, herself stung, is helped to escape by Peeta. Katniss joins forces with young Rue, and in a sneak attack destroys the other group’s provisions. When Rue is trapped, Katniss – too late – kills the girl’s attacker. It is announced that this year, two contestants from the same District can win. Finding Peeta severely injured, Katniss heads to an announced ‘Feast’ to get medicine, and is rescued from attack by Rue’s District companion. Mutant dogs drive Katniss and the healed Peeta to the only other survivor Cato, who is killed. Instructed to fight each other after all, Katniss and Peeta threaten to commit lovers’ suicide together, and are declared joint victors.
Review: Panem et circenses, or ‘bread and circuses’, is how the satirist Juvenal described the empty distractions doled out by Rome’s political élite to appease and stultify the plebs. Panem is also, significantly, the name of the post-apocalyptic dystopia in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling 2008 ‘young adult’ novel The Hunger Games, where a decadent Capitol keeps its proletarian subjects in check with an annual gladiatorial circus, televised live as a tool of mass entertainment/oppression, and ‘performed’ by 12 pairs of adolescent male and female Tributes chosen by lot from their respective Districts. In an expansive, controlled arena, the victor is the last boy or girl left standing.
Collins got the idea for her novel (and its two sequels) from channel-surfing between reality television programming and actual war footage, making it appropriate that her story should return to the audiovisual medium that originally inspired it, and that features so prominently in it. Of course this sort of material has previously appeared in films as diverse as Punishment Park (1971), Rollerball (1975), The Running Man (1987), Battle Royale (2000) and Series 7: The Contenders (2001) – but never before has it been targeted specifically at a tween/teen demographic. The result feels somewhat compromised: a film built around a grand spectacle of violence, brutality and death, but that carefully avoids reproducing such spectacle for its young, impressionable viewers. Combat scenes are largely presented in blurry handheld that implies carnage without showing it directly, while in Britain, seven seconds of footage were subjected to “visual cuts, visual darkenings and the digital removal of sight of blood” at the request of the BBFC to enable the granting of an all-important 12A certificate.
What remains is a triumph of restraint – but had the film been more visceral and less sanitised, it might have better implicated viewers in the voyeuristic bloodlust of its entertainment, leading to (uncomfortable) identification with the Capitol’s grotesque, baying crowds. As it is, we are let off the hook, invited to tut at the screen in easy moral disapproval, and never confronted with our own ugly reflection. Similarly disappointing are subtle changes to the characterization of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). Her first kill, expressly an act of vengeful rage in the novel, becomes a defensive reflex in the film; and where in the novel her relationship-in-the-spotlight with neighbour and fellow competitor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is portrayed equivocally, only to be devastatingly disambiguated in the final pages, in the film the ambiguity is maintained, in service to the inevitable sequel. The effect is to transform a complicated, difficult figure into a less interesting saint.
Still, Lawrence brings an intense conviction to the rôle, and her previous, similar turn in Winter’s Bone (2010) helps flesh out, through cinematic shorthand, a character whom we get to know in the novel through an internal monologue thankfully absent here. Meanwhile, Katniss’ original first-person narrative and restricted perspective are wisely replaced with regular cutaways to the control room, commentary box and Presidential garden – lifting the curtain on the whole macabre circus.