As the end credits of The Hunger Games rolled before me, a question came to mind: with this story on the shelves since 2008, why on earth would any young adult obsess over Twilight? I’ve not read Suzanne Collins’ novels, but, if this film serves as any indication, the series has got a richer world, deeper themes, sharper characters, and now a more thoughtful adaptation by Gary Ross. Some might argue that the franchise lacks a pasty vampire heartthrob with goofy hair. That’s because it targets those who would suck us dry rather than celebrate them, exposing the way duplicity has inserted itself in all aspects of our culture, including politics, the media, and, of course, interpersonal dynamics among youths.
The plot centers on sixteen-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her journey through the titular Hunger Games, an annual reality show in which twenty-four randomly selected teenagers from twelve districts are thrown into the wilderness to fight to the death. Every child between the ages of twelve and eighteen must enter the draw at least once, but families in need (that’s all of them) may put their kids’ names on extra ballots in exchange for food and supplies. Think Bad Girls Club but with genetically engineered wasps and government propaganda.
Needless to say, the concept requires an adept directorial hand, and I’m impressed at the subtle way Ross juggles the demands of its brutal satire and the sensitivities of younger viewers (or rather that of their parents). Take, for example, his use of the dreaded shaky cam technique to abstract the kid-on-kid violence without censoring the games’ sadistic nature. I also appreciate the way he shifts from documentary-style cinematography in the first act to conventional Hollywood glitz in the Capitol, contrasting the gritty reality of the districts with the fantasy created by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Every event is filtered through the resentful eyes of Katniss, a protagonist of so few words most actresses would be tempted to grin or strut in every shot to avoid fading in the background. Fortunately, Jennifer Lawrence, who played a variation of the same character in Winter’s Bone (2010), displays enough confidence to let the heroine’s insecurities seep through her silent expressions, each worth the thousand words used for it in Collins’ first-person narrative. I particularly like her sudden quivers just before entering the arena. In fact, it’s my third favourite moment in the movie.
My second occurs earlier, when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. If twelve-year-old Primrose (Willow Shields) screaming for her sibling doesn’t break your heart, the sight of Gale (Liam Hemsworth) dragging her away to facilitate his friend’s sacrifice surely will. Male love interests respecting their partner’s decisions shouldn’t seem so rare. Whereas Twilight deserves some credit for depicting teen love as it feels (intense, clumsy, and bursting with misinterpreted lust), The Hunger Games earns my gratitude for providing a healthy model its pubescent audience can follow. Our heroine is far from perfect, what with her temper and introverted abrasiveness, but the boys she gravitates toward value her as a full-rounded human being, not an ideal over which to obsess.
Consider the other contestant from district twelve, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s figured out the Hunger Games amount to little more than high school politics. He knows Katniss well and has decided fierceness and hunting experience give her the edge. At the same time, though, he’s identified her weakness, likeability, and sets out to provide her with a fan following. Our heroine grows fond of the boy not because he puts her survival ahead of his own but because of the vow he makes to himself: “If I’m going to die, I want to still be me.” There are, you see, greater concerns in life than romance.
This leads us to my favourite scene, in which Katniss expresses her mourning by echoing an empty gesture from the first act and, in so doing, incites a riot in one of the outer districts. Consider what it communicates about vapid consumer propaganda and world-changing art: that the two are the same in means, appearance, even reach, and that the only difference lies in the speaker’s integrity. For some, the implications may prove challenging to grasp, but then that’s what makes The Hunger Games worthy as young adult entertainment: it addresses the young but requires them to view the world as adults.