Remember when Hollywood sold us movies about teens getting a day off, chasing girls and getting drunk? Today Hollywood is selling teens getting in the arena, hunting others and getting famous.
The Hunger Games is set in a new Roman-like empire, where impoverished miners give up their children to an American Idol meets Most Dangerous Game TV show in order to entertain the city’s gaggles of spumoni-colored Parisian drag queens.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except it bears very little resemblance to reality. From the start I wondered what would happen if the teens simply refused to participate. Perhaps that’s book Three.
In the mean time, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her sister’s stead, leaving behind a hunky woodsman to run around with a baker’s helper with low self-esteem and a secret crush on her. The TV queens latch onto that possible romance for ratings (not sure why ratings are even a factor in a “tribute must die” world) and the two teens decide to live as if it’s true, saving each other at opportune moments.
Enough about plot. I’m sure it will make a ton of money, primarily for its novel fan-base and compelling moment-to-moment action, and despite the infantile, nausea-inducing camera work (God, I miss deep focus!). But if one steps back and looks at the basic elements, the story itself is not working.
Here are the teachable points:
World of the Story
Typically, if you’re setting up a fantastic journey, you provide a simple setting. If a fantastic setting, a simple story. If both are fantastic, you have what we refer to as “too weird to work.”
Case in point, Pan-America is governed by a Rome-like city that demands teen tributes to fight to the death. Or what follows? A war with Europe? Another revolution? These people are miners (and minors), not freedom fighters. What if they refuse to give up their children? They’ll not be fed?
What are the governing principles of this society? Is it fascist? Communist? What’s the industry? It can’t be a feudal system since there’s no outside conflict, and no reason to exploit a people when the government can magically generate animals with a computer.
So what’s the point?
It doesn’t resemble our world. I concede that the writers wanted to sound relevant, make a stand against for personal liberty against a too-powerful government, but they show a clear lack of understanding about how any government gets that way. So the setting is a straw-man.
The journey is about a girl becoming a champion. Good. Could be American Idol. But she’s killing other kids. Okay, gruesome, not the audience’s experience, but so be it…
So what are the rules of this journey? There aren’t any. The writers make it up as they go along.
This is the problem with stories that don’t recognize their inherent limitations. You can only do so much until the weak idea runs out of steam. You can release teens into an arena, hand them weapons, but you can’t sustain the narrative drive. So the writers added motivators, like the boy/girl district couples (if you want a feminist hunt, why not have her represent her district alone?), then teams (if only one survives, why join forces with others who will betray you later?), and if they don’t perform well, toss in some forest fires, fireballs, land mines, and digitally created killer mastiffs. Then change the rules half way, and change them back again twice later.
Oh, and invent super insects and berries. It would have been better had they taught teens how to survive a REAL wilderness, rather than an arbitrary one.
What they needed was a stronger story engine to sustain a full movie without resorting to gimmicks.
Everyone loves an underdog. Well, except the Emperor (Donald Sutherland). But Katniss, despite her feminist-hero aura, is NOT an underdog. No one thinks she’s an underdog, unless this arbitrary story calls for it.
Look, writers, you can’t have it both ways.
Everyone tells us that she’s the one to beat, the one who scores highest, the one everyone has to join forces to hunt down in the first half of act 2. Even Peeta, who can hurl 100 pounds over his head, thinks he’s dead meat and she’ll win.
But wait! Except for her archery skills, she has NO martial skill, speed or cunning. Everyone around her, including younger competitors, have to provide suggestions and bail her out consistently. Plus she almost gets eaten the first day by male competitors who are bigger, faster, and better trained, having trained for this specifically conflict their entire lives.
So what’s going on? Simply, modern feminism absurdly posits that girls must should grow up believing they are simultaneously superior in every way, AND victims deserving special privileges. This will become increasingly hard for storytellers. (This topic should be a separate post)
But back to the game… Katniss doesn’t want anything besides survival. She has no cards to play. That’s the reason so many fops and psychedelic insects and other crap have to be thrown at her. If she’s told she must actively hunt others or her family will be killed or Rome destroys District 12, then she has a moral dilemma. If she’s hunting her siblings, it’s even worse.
If she has a chance to turn the tables on those running the TV show, as in Running Man, that’s better. Or, if she has a chance to kill the Emperor, as in Death Race 2000, we have a (relatively) positive goal for her to accomplish.
But we don’t.
While probably not realizing it, the writers subverted the characters. They wanted to portray noble individuals standing up against a corrupt system, but Katniss and Peeta become exactly what the show wanted them to be. They succumb to their romance (though I didn’t) for “medicine” and their survival, in so doing, lose that nobility they might have died for.
So what life lesson have we learned? Don’t kill? Hardly. Stand up to oppressive government? Objection, assuming facts not in evidence. Protect the young, or fight for family? Maybe, but don’t we already know that?
This may be a reach, but I sense that the writers made an anti-war movie. That is, why else would anyone set their babies into a hostile arena to destroy each other for adult entertainment? (Well, unless it’s a statement about American Idol or public education.)
But they still haven’t made their case. And I don’t know if I’ll bother with the sequels to find out.