It's been said, recently, that a book commits suicide each time one watches Jersey Shore. As soldiers die for their countries, Kim Kardashian x-rays her hindquarters. And while millions post lavish photos of themselves online in various positions of vanity and consumption, people all over the world go to bed hungry. There are middle grounds, of course, between absolute pain and absolute gluttony; most of us are fortunate enough to inhabit them, as human beings, and as film spectators. But disparities such as these are impossible to be ignored, and make for the most meaningful stories, in fiction and in life. If there is a message to be taken from Gary Ross's film, The Hunger Games (adapted from Suzanne Collins' novel), it's not the violence, the effects, the chemistry between the actors, or the development of its characters (though plenty of critics have voiced their disapproval over these things). It's rage against the machine, it's "Do the Right Thing," and it's a question for humanity:
Are you all right with what's happening? Because no matter whose side you're on, you're implicated simply by watching.In a dystopian society, The Capitol rules over the country of Panem and its twelve districts. Once a year, each citizen between the ages of twelve and eighteen enters his or her name into a drawing which will decide the tributes for Panem's "Hunger Games," a fight to the death among the districts that is televised, live. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a citizen of district twelve who hunts, volunteers as tribute when her younger sister's name is chosen; Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is the male tribute who joins her. As the two make their way to The Capitol to prepare and train, they're guided by a team of coordinators, stylists, and their own district's lone former victor, Haymitch Abernathy(Woody Harrelson), who serves as mentor to the pair, but has a difficult time staying sober.
Once Katiss and Peeta arrive, they're both at a loss to absorb the sheer spectacle of The Capitol and its inhabitants, not to mention the sudden availability of endless food, luxurious spaces, and materials thrust upon them, but they both seem oddly immune to such allure---Katniss defiantly so, shooting an apple from the mouth of the judges' roast pig to protest their indifference to her training ("Thanks for your consideration,") but Peeta in a way that suggests he's known all along what the games are really about ("I want to show them that they don't own me.") Once the games begin, Katniss follows Haymitch's advice to forego any resources and to first find water, and uses her keen hunting skills to survive in the wilderness, but news of her ability and rebellion has spread, and before long, Katniss Everdeen is on a dangerous hit list spanning from the tributes hunting her to the Game-makers all the way to Panem's own President (played by Donald Sutherland).
In a tale concerning such a distasteful moral dilemma (teenagers killing each other, some of them gleefully), the viewer has to understand the motivation or identify with the characters (or both) in order to become invested in something so taboo, and the scenes of Katniss's history along with the underlying ideology of her character accomplish this well. Her home in district twelve is gray and dusty. Rare is a smile or light-hearted event---life is hard for everyone that lives there. Katniss transitions easily between hunter, barterer, friend, and surrogate mother (to her younger sister) and eventually would-be martyr; out of necessity, she's become an omnipotent woman long before she reaches adulthood. This ability and later selflessness persists in the game arena as she keeps herself alive, only kills in defense, threatens her own safety forming an alliance with little Rue, (the tribute from district eleven, no doubt a reminder of her own sister) and later risks her life to acquire medication for a seriously wounded Peeta.
That the seemingly lesser-violent camp of tributes (Katniss, Rue, Peeta, Thresh) manages to hold onto its humanity inside the arena is huge, and stands in direct contrast to the ferocious, uber-violence displayed by the Capitol-supported "career" tributes of districts one and two, who seem to take sick pleasure with each kill. Despite this, the good guys refuse to be thwarted, even in such desperate circumstances: Peeta forms an alliance with the careers to keep them from Katniss. Katniss covers a fallen ally in flowers and sobs. Thresh spares Katniss's life because of her empathy, "Once, Twelve, for Rue." These acts are those of children, yes, but also tiny acts of rebellion toward the system that has forced these children to live hungry, watch others die, and now would have them carve each other up for the entertainment of The Capitol. There is pain and suffering, but there's heart, too. Haymitch Abernathy, though a supporting character, gives one of the film's most loaded reactions as he watches and grimaces when a young Capitol boy gleefully opens a toy sword and starts thrusting it upon everyone in anticipation of the bloodbath the games will bring.
Why are we doing this? What if we didn't?
(A kiss and three fingers to you, Miss Everdeen).