I saw The Hunger Games twice last week. I wanted to soak it in, to enjoy it simply as a visual feast and spend time breaking down each scene, each nuance, each moment in my head.
On both viewings, I was struck by the cinematic devices that director Gary Ross used to elevate the film, the first feature in a projected trilogy, out of the realm of teen or action fare and into the arena of epic classics. Any movie that debuts with a $152 million opening weekend and grabs the title of third biggest opening ever is grabbing a place in history with sheer numbers. But I think the film's visuals are what truly make it special and they work on two levels.
The Hunger Games is, as we all know, the story of a frightening fascist leader, President Snow, ruling from a glittering Capitol, where he systematically oppresses the twelve districts that make up the post-war world, Panem. So it shouldn't have been surprising to see how intensely the filmmakers evoked our own world in the years leading up to World War II. It shouldn't have been but it was. And it worked. Katniss' home, downtrodden District 12, looks like a Depression-era mining town -- the way a town in North America would look under the circumstances. It caught me off guard a bit, because I was ready for it to look "other," post-apocalyptic and unrecognizable. Instead, it looked the way our world looked during the time between the wars, familiar to us primarily via images from movies of the era.
This theme was continued when we reached the Capitol. Nazi Germany's rise, as depicted in Leni Riefenstahl's monstrously effective 1935 propaganda film, The Triumph of the Will, looms creepily in subconscious memory as we take in the soaring structures, the guards and the pageantry of the Tributes' introduction to the masses. The styles in the Capitol, while crazily over-the top and colorful, even had a kernel of high-end 1930s glamour. Effie's crazy hats and exaggerated tiny bow lipstick looks like it could have come off '30s movie screens, with stars wearing Elsa Schiaparelli's fanciful tiny hats and big-shouldered suits.
Visual cues in The Hunger Games weren't limited to fashions, however. There were a lot of shots in the movie that seem to have been inspired by an earlier, meaningful movie. Bits of iconic pop-culture monuments are threaded through the movie in a way that feels brilliant rather than derivative. The Hunger Games has an alienating premise for the uninitiated (kids killing kids for food) and movies about teenagers get dismissed as fluff pretty easily. The deployment of classic moments from movies that mattered, throughout THG, really works, helping to cement its place in their midst.