Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Hunger Games [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

The Hunger Games, directed and cowritten by Gary Ross along with Suzanne Collins [IMDb] and Billy Ray is based on a recent young adult novel The Hunger Games (first published in 2008) written as the first part of a highly successful trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  The story is set at least 100 years into the future in a North America that for reasons unclear had been transformed into a single totalitarian state divided into 12 and possibly 13 districts still seething after a failed rebellion some 75 years before.  As a result of the rebellion, the regime of Panam as the new country is called, demands a yearly tribute of a young man and a young woman from each District to compete in a "Reality Show meets Gladiator Contest to the Death" called "The Hunger Games" whose spectacle keeps the Districts both transfixed and in line.

Since, needless to say, few volunteer for a competition in which only one has only a 1 in 24 chance of coming out alive, "contestants" are generally picked by a lottery called a "Reaping" held in each district by delegates sent out to each District from the Capitol.  The lottery is "weighted" apparently based on both clout and troublesome behavior.  Well connected people have less chance of being picked while young people who themselves (or their families) have been in trouble with the authorities find themselves with proportionally more chances of being picked.

There also appears to be a minimum age at which a child becomes entered into the lottery.  Indeed, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from back-woods District #12 (which looks like Appalachia from before LBJ's Great Society) finds herself actually volunteering for the contest after, to her horror, her little sister Primrose (played by Willow Shields) who had just become eligible for the lottery got selected.  Rather than have to watch her little sister be lead to certain slaughter, Katniss who knew a thing about hunting (with a bow and arrow no less) volunteers to take her place.  The other unlucky person to be selected was baker's son Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) and took his selection as a virtual death sentence.

What follows in the story is reality television driven to its worst possible conclusion and then on several levels:

First, despite the fact that the Hunger Games was an annual contest to the death in which only 1 in 24 contestants, "the winner," could come out alive, the Regime (and depressingly, the larger society) choose to pretend that it is a Pageant.  The "contestants" who are soon going to be killing each other are introduced to the larger society through a series of televised spectacles.  They're dressed in stylish clothes (each supposedly representing the "dress and customs" of the Districts from which they came) and process into a cheering stadium of onlookers on stylized motorized chariots.  Later they're each interviewed a la television talk show host who seeks to produce superficially compelling "back stories" for each of the contestants.  The "contestants" from each district are also given a "team" to coach them.  Katniss' and Peeta's head coach/mentor is Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson) the only other constant from District #12 ever to win the contest.  Needless to say, he initially comes across as completely insane (from Post Traumatic Stress...) as a result of surviving (er "winning") said contest.  He does sober-up and become more useful as the story continues as he starts to see that his "contestants" this year, especially Katniss, had a serious chance of "winning" (er "surviving") as well.  Finally, each of the "contestants" is given opportunity to in someway "impress" (brown-nose) potential "sponsors," who become key in the subsequent contest as "sponsors" could purchase potentially life-saving equipment (sometimes as basic as matches to light a fire) for the contestants and deliver said equipment to them.

Then when the contest actually begins, the contestants are dumped in a large "wilderness arena" which is nevertheless riddled with cameras like in The Truman Show [1998] so that the television audience to watch the action.  Play by play is naturally offered, and if the contestants prove insufficiently involved in the bloodletting, they are prodded by various means to get more involved.  Much somewhat sanitized violent bloodletting ensues... (Parents take note... I do believe that the film is suitable for high school students, but for those much younger than that, I really don't see a point.  The film would be way too violent for pre-teens and I just don't think pre-teens would understand the story in any case).

Objections.  I understand and largely agree with the story's/film's condemnation of savage competition.  Already with regards to the recent film The Warrior [2011], I noted that the great tragedy portrayed in that film was that two brothers each with compelling stories both deserved to win but that only one could do so.  In The Hunger Games, there were 24 contestants, most unwilling, forced to compete in a competition in which only one could survive.  I find such competition shockingly appalling and fundamentally immoral.  We are, after all, supposed to all be God's Children and hence all deserving of Life (as well as Liberty and yes Happiness.  Perhaps to the surprise of many, both the American Founding Fathers and the Catholic Church had/have this right).

My principal objection to the scenario is that in author Collin's world of the future there appeared to be no religion left to oppose this annual ritual of murder.  Yes, according to the story the 12 Districts did revolt against the central authority of Panam and indeed that is why the Hunger Games were supposedly instituted.

However, I'd find it hard to believe that there would be no Christians/Catholics left (in Appalachia no less) to oppose (even to their own deaths) this crazy Gladiator-like spectacle.  After all, the first Christians opposed the same kind of bloodletting in ancient Rome (and went to their deaths opposing it, being times even 'fed to the lions' for sport).  There is simply no way that I'd put-up with such a horror and I honestly do not believe that I'd be alone.  Killing people for sport on TV?  Simply no way, while there's still even a small band of Christians or Catholics left.

So while I do think that the story is compelling, I don't buy the scenario: Catholicism/Christianity would simply have to be completely wiped-out for something like this to take place because there is no way that the Church/Christianity would allow such a contest to take place no matter how popular such a contest could perhaps be.

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  1. The Hunger Games has as much to say about oppressive politics and the bloodthirsty, heartless media as it does about the internal struggle among the combatants. Still though, everybody here is great, especially Lawrence in a star-making role, and definitely has me pumped up for the sequel. Good review Dennis.

  2. I will say the book does a much better job of explaining the reason why people don't protest. Simply put, if you oppose the Capital laws, you are beaten in public and left for dead by the Peacekeepers. The districts are too poor to afford proper medicine, so even a lighter punishment can be a death sentence if infection sets in. The big dissenters are either killed in "accidents," enslaved in the Capital (the starkly dressed servants in the Capital housing), or disappear.

    The Capital citizens--not forced to participate in the games--are the only ones who buy the reality TV pageantry. There's a reason the film cuts back to District 12 with everyone looking so grim. It's to contrast the enthusiasm of the blood thirsty Capital citizens. They alone get joy out of the games. The big flaw of the film is not making the distinction between the Capital and the Districts clearer from the start beyond physical characteristics.

    I love your perspective on this film in relation to faith and morality. It is a strong argument and it's a topic that isn't broached at all in the novels. It would be interesting to dig into the text and see what elements of a Judeo/Christian society inform the actions of the districts and the games as a whole.