The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross, made some $155 million opening weekend, and if you're among the few who haven't seen it yet, stop reading here.
This is one of those old school essays I used to write, not as a critic, but just because it's important to write about things -- to look at them and try to understand them. I'm telling you this because Hunger's got a rich subtext, it's a kind of movie-within-a-movie, which may explain its success and wide appeal.
For some, "IT'S THE NEW TWILIGHT!" And by that I'm assuming the ticket master is referring to the gaggle of teens bouncing around the lobby waiting for the movie to begin. This film is based on the first in a trilogy of best-selling books by Suzanne Collins and has a strong teeny-bopper protagonist, who like-totally-loves two nice boys from her town, and like Twilight's Bella, has to find her way in the world with derring-do.
But this is no Twilight.
It's one of the toughest satires of modern culture I've seen in awhile. It made me think of Series 7 and Logan's Run and other films, like 1984 and A Clockwork Orange... and like those movies, I felt sad watching them, even as I was moved by the effectiveness of the storytelling.
Just so we're all on the same page, cynicism comes from cynic, "a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view," and this meaning comes from the Greek:
One of a sect of Greek philosophers, 4th century B.C., who advocated the doctrines that virtue is the only good, that the essence of virtue is self-control, and that surrender to any external influence is beneath human dignity.
The setting of the story is some alternate future -- in a post-war North America -- where the main character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself at the center of events beyond her control -- (here's the external influence) the community butchers 23 of its children every year in a bastardized kind of Olympic fight to the death, where only one child, the 24th, is left to live -- and her sister will be one of them. Katniss offers herself up to take her sister's place (there's the selfless act) so that the youngster won't have to participate in this grotesque contest broadcast live on TV.
Opposition between the haves and have-nots takes front stage, as the haves of the city enjoy its material comforts. With clownish make-up, hair dye and flashy clothes, their outward appearances reflect the vapidity within: Advancement and ambition are paramount to these people, who care more about being entertained than those who suffer for their amusement. (Who after all would consider the deaths of children a diversion?) They live in lofts that can project pictures of any reality (a tranquil forest, for example) in place of what is really outside their windows -- cement buildings, an urban landscape. We don't get to know what all the country dwellers' districts look like, but as for the living where Katniss comes from, think of the cliché of an Appalachian coal miner's family, or imagine one from The Grapes of Wrath. It's as if the life force is slowly being sucked out of them, the faces of the adults are plowed with lines like dirt tracks and the children look to be headed for the same fate: a harsh, simple life without much material comfort. The abundance of nature (not the projection of it) however is not far from their reach, just beyond the border of town, if they dare to venture out. And they are grounded in a way the city people are not -- in place of the false joviality of a city recruiter (played by Elizabeth Banks) for instance, they applaud with one hand raised in silence.
A good example of this sobriety is Katniss' reaction to the orgy of food presented her once she's enrolled in the hunger games. Remember, her people scrounge for food. She is probably malnourished. Yet she and her companion, another boy from her district, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) regard the gaudy display -- syrupy cakes, goodies and juices -- with curiosity but don't pounce on it like travelers reaching an oasis (because doing this after a lifetime of deprivation probably would have made them quite sick). They have a kind of self control and sureness about themselves that is -- wise. (Again, incidentally, the Greek notion of self-control, as defined above, is still alive with these characters in this moment.)
More than once the film shows us this picture of the haves -- they are all sitting in plush theater seats. The country folk more often than not are standing, watching a communal TV. The viewer can't help but notice that the theater-goers look a lot like those of us in the theater watching this movie...
The audience -- both in the capitol city (which sponsors the event) and in the impoverished rural districts that supply the children -- watches at times enthralled -- (city-dwellers who we surmise are thinking, "isn't that cute!" ) -- and horrified (country folk who we gather are thinking, "That was my kid they just blew up!"). A viewer wouldn't strain to see echoes of the latest overseas war, so often supplied with the bodies of our rural/urban poor here, a fact Collins speaks to in this interview.
What I love about what this film does is that it insults the audience in such a very subtle way. How crafty! Some people don't like being poked fun of, of course. One reviewer from The New Yorker is "eluded" by all this:
Though the satiric point of making some of the plutocrats monsters out of an eighteenth-century farce eludes me, the actors try hard for vulgar panache, and they perform with professional skill.
Ha ha, pretty funny. What's even funnier is the rest of the review focuses on the film's shooting style, and misses I think of the point of the whole effort. But alas, we are all entitled to our views.
And to our left we have, well, an examination of corruption -- and sin. The arbiters of the contest are gluttons, partying while the rest of the country is hungry. The master of ceremonies, played by Wes Bentley, even has his beard etched into the pattern of flames, as if to intimate that he is a kind of devil, the fools surrounding him in a type of hell.
And what do wicked people want more than anything?
The company of the good!
To possess them, the cynical might say.
And/or, to remember what it was to be good and to cling to the hope of being saved, others might suggest.
No big surprise then that the political leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wants Katniss out of the games -- and out of the picture. He tells the master of ceremonies as much.
When Bentley's character defies that order he's shown the way people step aside in this peculiar instance - eat some poison berries.
But Hunger looks even further at corruption in a less obvious and more disturbing way: Katniss is a smart girl. She even says so: "I'm smart," she assures her sister as they bid farewell. And Katniss soon realizes if she follows directions she can survive -- win. But Hunger turns the notion of being smart on its head, because it sets up our heroine to not be a person necessarily of brave and noble qualities (predictable traits of a hero) but to be -- a sell-out.
As Katniss prepares for battle, seemingly kind-hearted mentors show her the ropes -- from how to be personable (wash-up, don-flames, wear make-up) to how to navigate the terrain on the battlefield (go to high ground, get water, make friends) and yet while they are teaching her how to survive they are also paving the path for the destruction -- of her heart.
As mentioned, Peeta was drafted with Katniss. He's 'in love' with her, and like Katniss, is being forced to compete in the games. In a heart-to-heart before the first big battle, he tells her even if he's going to die, he wants to still be himself -- doesn't want to be someone he's not. Katniss makes no such pledge. She can't afford to (be that idealistic).
Katniss pretends to fall for this boy, even if her feelings do become "real," they are still moves forced by the game.
And slowly and surely, the once "pure" girl, who sacrificed herself to save her sister, becomes a woman of the world, making her way to stardom, winning the game, by make-up, murder (these kids win after all by killing each other) and hiding her real heart. In a very quiet way, Hunger creates a heroine who ultimately plays/betrays herself: initially motivated by self-sacrifice she is corrupted by external forces encouraging her to use tactics to survive. Her motivation to go home changes from a selfless to selfish (yet understandable) desire (to survive). She ultimately surrenders to the external influences of the game and wins in part by faking her love for Peeta. The Greek Cynic, as defined above, would have thought this "beneath human dignity."
We love Katniss all the same, just like the crowd welcoming her home, just like the capitol dwellers, we all applaud her, even as she raises her hand in victory, even as she's hand-in-hand with her new boyfriend, even as we watch as her real love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) watches her from the audience, kid sister on his shoulders, as if to remind her of the bargain she's made.
Is her smile real? What are we, the audience supposed to feel for the triumph of a sell-out? What good is a pyrrhic victory? What good is it to seek the approval of those you despise? What kind of society sees the demise of youth as entertainment?
Hunger asks all of these questions.
And what is even more haunting is that by watching this film we have participated in a hunger game -- this mutilation of innocence. And we enjoyed it!
Because we are hungry for it.
Why are we hungry for it? I think this film is asking us to take a look at that voyeuristic pleasure taken in the suffering of others -- and on different levels -- from the banal (tabloids, the popularity of the latest slasher films and TV shows, for example), to the macro (certainly we can all think of ways we contribute to the toxicity of our public spaces, I'm sure); to the personal (the disconnection the developed parts of this country have with the natural world, as people race around in their cars and through subways, and jack themselves into the latest technology, coating themselves with plastic and corn syrup, watching and waiting to feel something real and innocent because, it's elusive). Or, because it's been forgotten.
Ah, this is cynicism! Believing that this is the best that we can be.
Hunger reminded me in little ways of Dave Eggers' book of short stories, How We Are Hungry and also of Jennifer Egan's writing. Both writers are much heralded and discuss in different ways, the tumult of desire and need in modern culture. I know this is a broad thing to say, but you don't need me to name two fancy writers to know that cynicism is a common sentiment.
And while I agree that it may be good to pencil out these our many contradictions:
i.e., I drive a car you might say, but it's a hybrid! I wear clothes made overseas, but they're organic! I support equality, but I send my kids to private school!
To say hey, we all live with contradictions, both superficial and profound. I think perhaps what would be good would be to not feel so lacking.
So what is the antidote to this what-I'm-calling cynicism?
Search your heart and you will find it. I'm sure you will agree that Katniss had more options than the ones presented her. Search your heart and you will find there is more there than less. And eventually, you will lose your taste for blood.
The Hunger Games is now in theaters.