Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Film Friday: The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games proved quite a sensation. Millions of kids the world over fell in love with the story and its heroine Katniss. It was only natural they would make a movie, and make they did. They eventually made four movies and this was the first. Interestingly, a lot of conservatives love this series, but I don’t see anything conservative going on in this particular film.


The Hunger Games takes place 74 years after some sort of nuclear civil war in the United States resulted in the separation of the country into a twelve districts (a thirteenth is mentioned, but is also mentioned as having been destroyed) under the dictatorial control of a central power. The country is called Panem, but few details about it are given. The film doesn’t even tell you where this central power resides, though you are told it is called “the Capitol” and it has the look of a fantasy version of Washington state.
The story focuses on a young girl named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). She lives in what was once West Virginia, where they mine coal which gets supplied to the Capitol. As the story opens, a group of “Reapers” shows up in Katniss’s district – District 12. They have come to run a lottery from which one boy and one girl will be chosen. Those kids will be taken to the Capitol, where they will fight to the death in a game of survival called “The Hunger Games.” This game was created as a punishment for the other districts for rising up against the Capitol and has continued on as a sort of bread and circus tool for controlling the population.
During the lottery, Katniss’ little sister is chosen, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. For the boys, a useless son of a baker is chosen, who just happens to have a long term crush on Katniss. They are taken to the Capitol by high speed train (thanks Obama!), where they meet the other kids, several of whom have been illegally trained their whole lives for this event... providing the richer districts with an advantage. Katniss’s district has never won.

The children are then trained and paraded before television audiences. They are told to be likable so that sponsors will send them critical gifts during the game. They are also taught martial arts. It turns out, by the way, that Katniss has superior skills to the other kids.

Finally, they are dumped into a forested area and told to kill each other off.

A Good Movie, But Hardly Conservative

I’ve heard a lot of conservatives, particularly libertarians, who identify with these books and swear they have libertarian overtones. That may be true of the books, but this film really doesn’t have political overtones. Apart from some vague populist finger pointing at a fantasy centralized power dominating the country in some future dystopia, there is virtually nothing political in this film, and certainly nothing that would qualify as a coherent political statement. Indeed, none of the characters fights for freedom. None of the characters even talks up freedom. The theme of abuse of power is barely explored, except as a plot device to heighten the challenge Katniss faces, and the theory of how concentrated power leads to abuse is entirely absent from the film. In fact, objectively speaking, we don’t even know that this government is particularly abusive except for the Hunger Games itself and the disparity of wealth between the various districts.
Moreover those things which are political tend to be generic liberal tropes, like all the bad kids being rich and Caucasian, whereas the good kids are minorities. This is combined with another liberal trope, the Magic Negro trope, where the sole reason black characters exist is to aid the white protagonist in finding their humanity... you have three of those here (two kids who sacrifice themselves to save Katniss in the game and Lenny Kravitz who exists to tell us how special she is).

So, as far as the film goes, there is nothing particular conservative going on.
In terms of the film itself, the film is shot with a high degree of quality. The camera work is excellent, the effects are solid and the acting is good. The film is well paced. The story itself is solid, if simplistic – essentially, this is a film about people hunting each other in the woods and the rest is just characterization. The characters feel unique (the unique costumes help a good deal with this) and they feel whole, as if they have strong backstories, even though you don’t delve into those. The action is good, though there is nothing truly spectacular. There are a couple holes, but nothing that will stick out to you as you watch the film.
The film does have a couple flaws, but they are minor. For example, parts of the film could use more explanation. One such part involves the sponsors. The film spends considerable time telling you the importance of winning over sponsors so they can send the contestants vital gifts during the game, and Katniss does ultimately receive two life-saving gifts. Unfortunately, the film never explains the mechanics of this, such as how many sponsor there are or the limits of what they can send. The end result is that something the film builds up considerably feels underused and you wonder why the contestants aren’t awash in more and better gifts.

Another issue that is both a positive and a negative involves this being the first film in the series. On the one hand, this film feels complete and it doesn’t seem to spend any time setting up the sequels. I appreciate that as too many films like this feel hollow and incomplete as they spend all their time setting up sequels with introductions that won’t pay off during the film. On the other hand, this story by itself doesn’t offer all that much to make you want to revisit the film. Indeed, I suspect the re-watchability of this film will depend entirely on the re-watchability of the sequels.

Ultimately, this film doesn’t feel particularly consequential, nor is it particularly deep, nor does it leave you much to think about after you leave the theater, but it is a good film that is worth seeing. I don’t really see the political appeal for conservatives except for a general lack of liberalism, but I suspect there is more in the books that didn’t translate to the film.



KRS said...

Andrew, I think your review is pretty much on target. The only quibble is that Katniss' district did win one Hunger Game and the winner was Woody from Cheers.

I read the books when they came out because my kids wanted to read them and the topic of kids killing kids meant I had to clear the books first. They have some anti-statist, anti-big government undertones, but mostly these are just foils for the story and there's no real big message. I think people reading in a libertarian message to the plots an doing so more out of their own desires rather than the intentions of the author.

The movie is a very basic swords and sandals flick executed in a minimalist SiFi world. The hook of kids killing kids isn't new, ala Lord of the Flies, but the author is inventive about it and does a lot of it, which is also a little sick, even on this level. Nonetheless, there is some restraint in depicting the deaths, as there is in the movies. After I read the first book, I allowed my oldest to read it, but it was a long time before I could work myself up to reading the second.

Really, it's a "B" movie script with blockbuster class camera work and effects. Meh.

Jason said...

I would say the scene where they’re showing the propaganda film for the Hunger Games was a very effective and chilling moment, as they’re making what is essentially a bloody gladiator game look like something patriotic and wonderful. I give the film props for that.

The only thing I wasn’t happy about was the shaky cam. It was done to sanitize the film enough to get a PG-13, but it was annoying all the same.

I can’t say the story is necessarily pro-freedom either. To me, it was about ordinary people getting caught in a horrible situation that will take great odds just to survive, plus a look at celebrity culture, reality tv, etc. I don’t think the characters in the movie conceive of their society ever changing. That starts to change in the second movie.

tryanmax said...

Better than the films, the books are a fairly competent examination and critique on centralized media, its role in establishing and maintaining various -isms, as well as its subversion through counter-propaganda. As the series unfolds, Katniss becomes the figurehead of a media war that fuels a real uprising. The books dwell on this much harder where the films can simply demonstrate, though this risks catching the audience up in the effect rather than dissecting it. One of the central themes is Katniss' effort to become a sympathetic media figure while her real personality is quite bristly.

The Hunger Games is essentially a protracted prologue to that story. In turn, one could view the second book as a protracted inciting incident. But it all lays a groundwork for understanding the exaggerated role a centralized, government-controlled media plays in this post-apocalyptic world. Of course, this is not the nature of our media or government, nor do things appear to be headed in that direction, but there are those who perceive that they are. (If you ask me, we were probably nearest to that state in the FDR-era.) I'm not sure if this is where people are finding political overtones, but it is one possibility.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I must have missed that in the film that Woody was from District 12.

In any event, thanks! That's how I saw it too. At least as far as this film is concerned, all the political stuff just seems to be a generic, undeveloped background to the story, without any political intent. In fact, the way people kept talking about it, I expected to see Katniss make some sort of political statement somewhere along the way, but she never does. Like I said, there could be more in the books or the later movies, but there isn't anything in this film.

In terms of the script, I think you describe it well. This is a B-movie script with high production values and the result is a pretty decent film.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I liked that moment too with the video. It felt very creepy and it gave you a hint of the kind of sick world in which they live.

I agree that the film isn't really pro-freedom because no one seems interested in changing anything. If the film meant to send a political message, you would have expected at the very least that someone would have told you what a better world would have looked like... but no one does. Essentially, the most you get is a sense of "wouldn't it suck to live in this dystopia?"

KRS said...

In general, I agree with your points. What is missing from the books (I have only seen the first movie) is this: as Katniss becomes the figurehead of the revolution, she never comes to terms with it. She is always acting, always uncertain and never overcomes her inner demons or rise to the leadership demands of the society that is rapidly and violently evolving around her, desperate to follow her to a better life. After being totally suckered by her antagonists, she retreats from participating in building the new society.

In the end, the books feel a little manipulative because of her failures. She wins big at survival, but survival appears to be the only thing. She even allows her love triangle to be shattered by an event orchestrated by others, leaving the reader with the feeling that she doesn't truly choose or love the man she winds up with.

I think for there to be a true conservative message, there has to be an inspirational element or a hopeful sign. I didn't find either in the books.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think people see the political message as "oppressed hillbilly who rises up against the Capitol (aka Washington) to bring down government and establish free land without government." At least, that's the message that I keep hearing from people. I don't really see it here, but I haven't read the books.

You have an interesting take, by the way. I'm curious if that is what was intended? So far, there obviously is little in the way of a message to back that up, but I'll definitely be watching to see if your take proves true. :)

KRS said...

Oops, my previous comment was directed to Tryanmax.

tryanmax said...

KRS, exactly, and you summed it up way better than I did. Keep in mind, all of that struggle is driven by efforts to craft a media image. There's a little bit of what's missing from the first film in the second. There remains a lot of catching up to do in the last films, though.

I agree that the narrative is manipulative and predictable. At the same time, I see it as merely something Collins pins her broader media critique upon. Like I said, the critique is largely lost in the films because examination becomes merely demonstration. At the same time, I think Collins' media critique was already over the heads of many readers and book reviewers. They saw it--"Collins takes jabs at the media"--but they didn't examine it.

I suppose that undermines my idea that that is where some people might be finding political overtones. But I offered it with trepidation in the first place.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I agree that doesn't sound like a conservative message. A conservative message would involve the realization that freedom is essential to humans and an advocacy of a society that respects individual rights. All of this seems more like a tragedy about a girl who lives at a bad time and gets caught up in something she doesn't really care about.

djskit said...

This one has been sitting in the Netflix queue for some time...I've heard mixed things about and hate watching a movie and being disappointed. But your review has prompted me to watch it.

KRS said...

T-Max, I don't think it undermines your idea - I agree that this is the only place they might likely imagine a political message. I'm just saying that they're wrong.

If I were to pontificate judgmentally - and I were - I'd say that those who craft a conservative message from the film likely view the world from vaguely negative perspectives, unaffected by the hopes and aspirations of true conservatism, such that they read into the story a conservatism that isn't really there.

But give me Jennifer Lawrence in almost anything with a half pound of buttered popcorn and a quart of Coke and it's a good evening.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS and tryanmax, There is always a lot of "reading in" that people do when they like something. This may be one of those cases. People may just like the story and the overall idea of revolution against a central power and they read the rest into it.

I'm going to rewatch and then catch the rest with an eye on tryanmax's theory. I think he's on to something rather intelligent.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, All politics aside, this was a well done film that did hold my interest. There isn't as much to it as first appears, but it's definitely one of the better (best) dystopia films of late. I will be curious though to see how the sequels effect the first film.

Tennessee Jed said...

reminded me of "The Most Dangerous Game meets the Star Trek Episode where casualties report to the chamber to be liquidated.: Love Jennifer Lawrence. Good movie, harmless fun. Any criticism comes from the fact it was so popular and over-hyped. I agree the reason conservatives like it is the notion of a bad big government, and a heroine who takes a degree of individual responsibility. Nice thoughts, but not particularly "conservative" as a theme.

Kit said...

I loved and read the first book. As for the movie, I loved it too. One of the best I'd seen in years on the big screen.

I agree, the camera work is very good and it does a good job of keeping you interested. I especially liked how they handled the media aspect and made it very reminiscent of current sports coverage. Which actually made it creepier.

Voz said...

I watched the first movie first...then read the second and third books before watching the second movie. I agree with Tryanmax's initial comment about the media. After reading second and third books I was amazed at some of the similarities between the media in the book and the media we have now...and how our media now could be the media of Panem in time...I did appreciate some of the themes in the books but...someone mentioned it before...the lack of the theme of freedom for the individual is something I didn't notice at first...granted I only watched the movies and read the books once each. The other thing that struck me about the books/storyline was that the first book and second book are smaller stories than the story presented in the third book, hence why they are making the last book into two films...but I think that is a good idea, not just to make money, but to flesh out the story to be truer to it's source.

Kit said...

I don't think these are "conservative" but I don't think they are particularly leftist. A good movie does not necessarily need a strong political tilt. You could call the government a form of socialism/imperialism/serfdom. I highly doubt Panem represents a truly free market. But its never explored, so, whatever.

I think Jennifer Lawrence does a fantastic job playing Katniss Everdeen, a hillbilly girl with a chip on her shoulder who must pretend to be just a sweet girl from the country.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, and some that gave voice to some nagging doubts I had. I haven't seen the movie but read all three books, and I think Jed sums up why it became popular in conservative circles pretty well - they saw a tyrannical government opposed by a heroine and didn't dig deeper than that. The idea that it's more of a criticism of the media makes a lot more sense when you think about the books this way, especially considering how Katniss is constantly manipulated for purposes of a media image throughout the series. I enjoyed the books well enough but they did feel overhyped to me as well, which is probably why I've dragged my feet on checking out the movies.

- Daniel

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It does kind of have that feel doesn't it, of the Star Trek episode where everyone just reports to the death chambers. Interesting connection!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I get the feeling that no political statement, left or right, is intended. The whole set up just seems to be a background as a reason for establishing the games, and no one really makes any sort of political statement.

I like Lawrence too. She's got a compelling screen presence.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, I'll have to watch for the media idea. I think that's an insightful possibility.

AndrewPrice said...

Daniel, I've heard that constantly as well -- "this is about a lone girl standing up to an oppressive central government to free her people from government oppression." Then they usually draw some connection to Washington today. I, frankly, just don't see it. The girl doesn't stand for anything in the first film except surviving. No one stands up for freedom. There isn't even an undercurrent where people are whispering about freedom. In fact, no one makes any sort of coherent political statement of any sort.

Moreover, while the central government is clearly meant to be oppressive, we don't know anything about how it's structured except that it uses its military/police power to occupy the other districts. So we really aren't given enough to reach any sort of specific political conclusions other than "evil governments are evil," and that's apolitical.

Koshcat said...

I liked the first two books but the third not so much. I was pleased about how well they transferred the first book into movie. Probably one of the best examples.

Anonymous said...

Thought #1--It was posted on Wednesday, not Friday. ;D

Overall thought: Perhaps there's not much that's blatantly conservative about it, but isn't that ideal? Aren't overtly conservative films about as successful at the box office as sucker-punching liberal films? It's sort of subversive, and takes a page from liberal playbooks. Pop culture is upstream of politics, someone's said. Why not hook audiences with an entertaining movie & then weave conservative values in?

Other thoughts:

--Freedom--I think it's intentionally underplayed. These kids, and probably most of the populace that aren't seniors (if that), haven't grown up knowing what true freedom is. Kind of like how kids who grow up in an abusive household may not know that their world isn't normal until they visit other households.

--Survival--Yes, our heroine survives, first by luck, and finally by an act of desperation/despair and/or plain old teenage rebellion. But it's enough to mar the facade of this world, and gives the only glimmer of hope in this movie. Aren't reluctant heroes sometimes the better ones?

--Capitalism--Katniss is a supplier for the local black market for meat. Presumably, the government supplies everyone's needs--much like the old USSR--but falls short. Of course, this doesn't explain economically why baker boy learned to decorate cakes so elaborately, but--Oops! watch out for that plot hole! Where was I...?

--"Magic Negro" trope--Part of what enables liberalism/leftism to thrive is that they create divisions instead of unity. It's not improbable that the districts would have strong racial components to them. This could be a "Trojan" trope, IMO. ;)

--The "shaky cam" is an overused technique in cinema today, but I found it fitting, and fortunately sparingly used here.

--Sponsors--could have used more development, like showing the more popular/rich kids and what kind of special treatment they got. Just goes to show you though, even in an oppressed, fascist society, there are loopholes and back-door deals to be made for those with enough money.

I agree that this film by itself is good but not extensively rewatchable. The second film raises the stakes, though.

On a tangent, is there anything we can do about these studios putting out The End parts 1 and 2 of a story? Yes, we know you want our money. How about earning it with quality rather than quantity?

John Johnson said...

I feel this movie is a fine example of typical Hollywood-based degenerate art. Now that was deep wasn't it? :)

Loyal Goatherd said...

Late as usual, I think y'all have missed the subtle conservative message in the film. Granted it is very subtle. The anti-media message is loud and clear, as many of you picked up quite readily. A little more subtle is the anti-bullying message. Teens and their cliques are demonstrated clearly as the cool kids gang up at the beginning of the tournament. This group hunts the other tributes in force, seeking to destroy the other. After that is accomplished, they would presumably turn on each other in what could only be described as treacherous, murderous and evil. After all there can only be one winner. It is worth noting, that Katniss and Rue do not seek combat in the tournament and fight only in self-defense. While many seek to be the victor, some seek only to be the survivor. Teens routinely are given worse messages than this.

Years before the start of the series, the thirteen districts attempted to start a revolution against the Capitol. The Capitol won, District 13 was destroyed and, as punishment, an annual televised death match called The Hunger Games was created by the Capitol. Two participants, one male and one female, known as tributes, between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen randomly in a "reaping" from each district. Children may volunteer as a tribute instead of selection by lottery. They are taken to an arena and fight until only one is left alive. The lottery is weighted, the more help that is taken from the Capitol, presumably food, the more entries of that person into the lottery. No where is any government layer shown other than the Capitolites and their enforcers. There is no mayor, no Governor, no militia, no police, no other officials to be seen in each district, because there are none. It's the individual and the state, only. For seven years each person is in danger of being called, after that they are free. Free only in the sense of not being called to be tribute. But they are most definitely not free. There is no movement from one district to another, if one is born in the mining district, one is a miner or someone who supplies the miners. The feeling of helplessness pervades all the districts. Katniss and Gale discuss wondering off while hunting early in the movie, but loyalty to family and the district, both of whom would bear the punishment, should they in fact escape, stops them. Severe poverty, starvation and oppression are enforced by the Capitol on the people of the districts, who are slaves in all but name. The rebellion that will grow from the victory of Katniss and Peeta was hinted at with the riot in district 11 after Rue was killed. And that rebellion was cemented by the threatened suicide of the victors when confronted with an arbitrary rule change. Hope was born. Tyranny can be defeated.

I don't know about anyone else's observations, but rebellion to tyranny strikes me as classically liberal. Liberal like the founders of this nation we call home. Today's conservatives seek to conserve those classically liberal ideals. Hence the conservative nature of this series of films.

Not to mention the self-sacrifice of Katniss in substitution for her younger sister and other Christian themes mixed in. Still a B+ movie, better than most of the drivel that issues forth from Hollywood.

AndrewPrice said...

LG, Sadly, I have to disagree.

Specifically, I think that much of what you say either comes from the books (or later movies) but doesn't make it into this film or is something you've had to project onto the film.

For example, "severe poverty, starvation and oppression are enforced by the Capitol on the people of the districts, who are slaves in all but name" isn't something the film ever says. You can infer it. But you can just as easily infer that the reason for the poverty is simple neglect -- the Capitol just doesn't want to share its Big Government wealth with the other districts. And the travel ban can be seen as an anti-immigration stance if you want. The point being that these things are so nebulous and undefined that you can read into them pretty much anything you want. To me, that invalidates any potential conservative message if a liberal message can be inferred just as easily.

Similarly, "rebellion to tyranny strikes me as classically liberal" is something I agree with completely, but no one really rebels in this film. Katniss, who should be doing the rebelling if that was the film's message, is entirely apolitical. The other characters aren't even really troubled by their world. So again, while I think you can read in a conservative message if you like, the film doesn't actually present you with one. In fact, you could just as easily read this as an OWS message, with capitalist pigs living in the big rich city, while keeping the poor economically enslaved in the districts, and the poor rising up (eventually) to "get their fair share." But again, that's an inference without firm support. And that's the problem -- neither side has any firm support to claim a message. In those circumstances, it strikes me there is no message except whatever preconceived notions the viewer arrived with... if any.

All of that said, however, it is nice to see a film with minimal liberalism and a message that government can be oppressive. Maybe that's enough to be conservative, but I would personally hope for something more.

Loyal Goatherd said...

Fair enough Andrew, I did say it was very subtle. Perhaps too subtle. Perhaps, it is the American Movie phenomena.

To quote Bill Whittle:

"You don't have to have the vast intellectual reserves of a French Minister of Culture to understand why our movies and music have such appeal abroad. They are, more often than not, each small ambassadors of freedom and optimism. From James Dean to Brad Pitt, Americans are cool; cool because they don't spend their evening sitting around bumming cigarettes and discussing global warming. They have bad guys to fight and motorcycles to ride, vast stretches of open road to get lost in and a disdain for any authority whatsoever. Where the European hero is a deeply conflicted soul lost in an existentialist nightmare, the American counterpart is a member of a rag-tag group of Rebels flying out to destroy the Death Star. Or a no-nonsense cop who plays by his own rules. Or an ordinary person, who, as the result of chance (Spider-Man), determination (Batman) or accident of birth (Superman), uses amazing personal power to aid the weak and fight evil.

These are our myths. They lack the patina of history that elevates those of the Greeks and Norse and countless other mythologies. But they are not created in a vacuum. These stories come from our common heritage and our common beliefs. Our heroes are what we make them, and for this country, the most successful have been young men and women thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who fight evils and monsters and never, ever use their powers for personal gain.

Yes, these are fantasies. No, of course real Americans are not so altruistic. But these are the standards we create for ourselves, and these American heroes represent what we represent as a nation. Action over endless discussion and moral paralysis. Rebellion against authority. Defense of the weak and helpless. And most of all, the optimism of the happy ending.

We get a lot of criticism from our betters about how shallow and mindless the Hollywood ending is. Fair enough. It does turn its back on the untidiness of reality. But it is also an expression of how we would have things turn out in a perfect world, a world where freedom and justice triumph and reign. These are the things we believe in, and these are, not surprisingly, immensely attractive to the rest of the world. "

Perhaps I conflate the American Movie ethos with conservatism.

AndrewPrice said...

LG, I do agree with you, I just don't see any real intent to convey a conservative message in this film.

I would personally argue that liberalism is entirely inconsistent with storytelling because it is inconsistent with the human condition. We crave the conservative views of heroism, self-help, and all those traditional values like loyalty which liberals like to dismiss as old fashioned and dated.

In terms of altruism, I would actually disagree with you to an extent. I've traveled the world and have friends and relatives in different countries and Americans really are different. We are different in that (1) we believe in self-help including defending ourselves and defending the weak, (2) we expect quality service and competence and the same respect being given to us that we would give to others, and (3) we wrap all of this in an amazing amount of altruism. You just don't see those values in other countries.

djskit said...

So I just watched the sequel on Netflix and I enjoyed it much more than the first. As alluded to in the comments, the first movie is more of a set-up to future events. So all the things that seemed to frustrate you and not "pay-off" is expanded in the second. I look forward to #3 coming out later this month.

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