All I asked of “The Hunger Games” was that it keep me awake. I’ve not read any of the books and probably would have waited for the DVD if my daughter hadn’t so wanted to be among the first to see the film. I had taken my son to “Avatar” at midnight, after all, so to be a fair parent I found myself sitting in a movie theater in the middle of last night / early this morning.
It kept me awake.
Confession – I have not been a fan of megaselling young adult series made into movies. I never got into Harry Potter although the rest of my family devoured the books and adored the films. I got through about 15 minutes of the first Twilight movie before I realized I was on neither Team Jacob nor Team Edward, but rather Team Meh.
(Quick digression – isn’t “meh” an absolutely awesome word suitable for so many occasions?)
My reaction to “The Hunger Games” was decidedly not “Meh.” I am hooked. I want to find out RIGHT NOW what is going to happen to Katniss and Peeta and Haymitch in the next two installments. Even in my sleep-deprived lethargy this morning, I got agitated when I found out part two won’t be coming out until November.
So I’ll have to read the books. Book one is now on my Kindle, ready to go.
What is it about “The Hunger Games” that drew me in? First, Katniss Everdeen. As I got to know Katniss in the film, I was elated that my teen daughter was into a series with a strong teen female lead, a character brave enough both to fight and to cry, to assert herself and to sacrifice. Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence; her portrayal is as brave as the character. That should be no surprise, though, as she embodied those same qualities in her Academy Award nominated performance in “Winter’s Bone” (which you should see if you haven’t, although it’s a gritty and at times difficult to watch R-rated depiction of the crystal meth culture in the rural south).
The older actors are compelling, all seemingly having a grand time. Woody Harrelson is appropriately jaded as Katniss’ mentor, a past Hunger Games champion. Stanley Tucci raises smarminess to a new level as Caesar, the overly unctuous (on-camera anyway) host of the televised spectacle that is The Hunger Games. And Donald Sutherland exudes a cool malevolence as the President.
The plot (which I will not divulge here) has enough twists and turns to keep even the most sleep-deprived dad conscious at a midnight show. Sure it’s derivative – The Running Man, The Lottery, and even Romeo and Juliet are all obvious influences – but aren’t all great stories really mashed-up retellings of other great stories?
I do have a fondness for well-made dystopic films. Children of Men is in my top ten or so, and Brazil is another favorite. Movies like these that give a nightmare version of a possible future provide warnings about the excesses of our present. Jennifer Lawrence said the trilogy holds up ” a terrible kind of mirror: this is what our society could be like if we become desensitized to trauma and to each other’s pain.”
That quote actually points to my biggest worry about “The Hunger Games.” Couldn’t a story about a game in which children kill children feed that same desensitization? It was here that I was most profoundly surprised. It is indeed a violent movie (the PG-13 rating should be taken seriously by parents with children younger than 13 or 14). Lots of under-18’s die. But never is a death regarded as triumphant or as something to be celebrated. While the camera does not linger on the moments of death, there are many heart-wrenching shots of children lying lifeless, often with eyes accusingly open.
In its violence, “The Hunger Games” is somehow a condemnation of the glorification of violence. The books’ editor has been quoted as saying that the author, Suzanne Collins, created “a critique of violence . . . that’s a fine line.” Indeed it is, and Collins, who wrote the screenplay, and director Gary Ross tread that line brilliantly.
I discussed the violence with my daughter on the way home last evening. The gift of something like going to a midnight movie are those moments you have with your children at 3am. She said she understood why I might have been worried, but that it was even more clear in the book that the killing was a bad thing. She didn’t feel she had received any “mixed messages,” and for that I am grateful. Perhaps these stories can help her to internalize that there are no meaningless deaths – or lives.
And finally, as a pastor I would be neglectful of my collar if I did not mention the theme of sacrifice that runs through the story. Katniss’ very presence in the games is the result of her willingness to sacrifice, and other competitors sacrifice opportunities or even themselves even in the midst of their struggle-to-the-death. As sacrifice is at the very heart of the Christian faith, this film can be the catalyst for both individual reflection and discussion about the nature of living sacrificially.
That, and it’s a ripping roller coaster of a film.