From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]borderstan.com.
First there were the Harry Potter movies. Then the Twilight series. Now, The Hunger Games. And to my mind the greatest of these is The Hunger Games. I was instructed by my granddaughter to read the book and then see the movie. She thought the book was better, but I prefer the movie so far. There is more to come, for the film is based upon only the first volume of a trilogy.
A great strength of the movie is that it captures the intensity of its protagonist, Katniss Everdeen — a self-sufficient hunter and unerring archer who protects her widowed family by shooting game for them to eat and to barter for other necessities.
The family lives in a world that has grown hungry because of a government that keeps the populations of its 12 North American districts under control — by want, surveillance, and the demand for sacrifice of a young girl and a young boy in an annual contest of hunter and hunted, until the last one stands alone. The Hunger Games thus paints a resolutely dark image of a future in which the welfare of the State is kept in equilibrium through the sacrifice of 24 of its children in an annual televised contest among them.
The action of The Hunger Games is mainly quiet — silent runs through trees and underbrush, long periods of watching and waiting, hard breathing. The film may try too hard to enliven that action with camera movement, but the minimal hide-and-seek of the film is gripping enough on its own. It’s the outlandish action in the Capitol that may wear the viewer down. Everything there is loud and artificial. Its inhabitants are garishly made up, over-fed, and hypnotically involved in watching the bloodiest incidents of the Games.
The contrasts between the quiet desperation of the members of the districts and the hysteria of the privileged citizens of the Capitol (in the fictional nation of Panem) are rich. And that richness is another virtue of the film where the performances of several “adult” figures played by actors such as Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz and Donald Sutherland flesh out portraits of the state’s enablers.
But the film’s essential human drama comes from close-ups of Jennifer Lawrence, the young actress who plays the role of Everdeen to subdued perfection. Her unadorned face registers few emotions — resolve, determination, and an occasional smile. But her alertness suggests that she will be a sharp-witted survivor, saving as many of the combatants as she can along the way.
One of the subjects of Everdeen’s protection turns out to be Peeta Mellark, the boy contestant from her village. Mellark is never as aggressive as Everdeen, nor as resourceful. But, he harbors a long-hidden love for her and that joins the two together, despite the girl’s reluctance to join in a romance plot. Their salvation, however, turns on Katniss’s discovery that they can save each other by offering to die together. Their partnership grows from this act, and it will become more important and complicated as the series develops.
It is notable that of all the Young Adult block-busters, The Hunger Games is the only one to feature an active and self-reliant heroine, attractive to girls and boys alike. Unlike the swooning Bella Swan of the Twilight series, Everdeen is not motivated by love, and she has no suitor as fabulously handsome as Bella’s heroically restrained vampire lover. And although Hermione Granger shows some independence in the Potter series, Harry overshadows her.
The Hunger Games features a dark vision of the future, with release imagined only through the exercise of such human resources as wit, will and generosity. Those other young-adult stories with their magic wands, shape-changing villains, and fabulous settings can barely compete with the severe allegory of The Hunger Games. Young adults like the challenge of such a tale, it seems.