Film in review: “The Hunger Games”

I read the book because my daughter recommended it, and I was so hooked that I immediately had to get the two sequels and read them. Though the subject material is awful, Suzanne Collin’s writing is mesmerizing, because she gets you emotionally involved with the characters.

The time is the not-too-distant future, the place is Panem, or what’s left of America after all the wars and the chaos (mercifully but curiously unexplained). What remains is the Capitol, where all the citizens are prosperous, and also bored and spoiled and bloodthirsty (think ancient Rome in its prime, but with better technology). In the outlying districts, people are in abject poverty (think Appalachia in the Depression), where even basic commodities, like food and clothing, are scarce and life is very hard. The Hunger Games are an annual gladiator-style fight to the finish, and the participants are drafted randomly from the pool of teenagers in each of the 12 districts. Yes, it’s a holiday atmosphere, watching the adolescents go after each other on live television (aided by hidden cameras everywhere).

OK, so the premise is horrible. Do we really want to watch kids kill each other for sport? And yet, in the book, we are so rooting for the main character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) that we accept her forlorn circumstances and follow her ordeal with amazement, as she first volunteers to be the tribute in place of her younger sister (for all you orthodox theologians out there, that’s called substitutionary atonement), then she is balefully introduced to the pathetic corruption and grotesque self-indulgence of the Capitol populace.

Her mentor would be none other than District 12’s only successful (surviving) tribute, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), who seems only like a dissolute drunk given to cheap endearments and facile solipsisms. He calls her “Sweetheart” and tells her the idea is to stay alive. Gee, thanks, Captain Obvious. But Katniss’ natural sense of rebellion strikes a chord with Haymitch, and he actually starts being helpful.

Glossed over in the movie is all the time Katniss has spent outdoors, hunting, in the forbidden natural forest, with her childhood friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whose role is greatly reduced in the movie. Katniss has become masterful with the forbidden bow-and-arrow (only Capitol citizens and soldiers can have weapons of any kind). This, of course, assists her greatly in her grim survival test, but she discovers other attributes that help her, also.

She’s shy around crowds, but the camera loves her reticence because it feels authentic. She’s trying to survive so she can return to Prim, her younger sister, so her tender caring for a younger, weaker tribute comes easily to her, because it’s like being with Prim, and this endears her to the audience, too. Katniss is tough – literally gritting her teeth through her wounds – and yet she knows when flight is smarter than fight. (The movie also glosses over her learning folk medicine alongside her mother, whose role is also greatly reduced.) She’s known Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the corresponding male tribute in her district, all her life, as the boy who threw her some spare bread outside his family bakery, but showing affection for him now is difficult for her, despite Haymitch’s encouragement to invent a romance for the cameras. The feelings that are aroused in her confuse her, because of her loyalty to Gale, but that old love triangle also is downplayed in the movie, which is really more about the event of The Hunger Games.

Is it gruesome? Yes, though the violence is understated compared to what it could have been. Will this movie attract a lot of attention? Yes, because of all the fans of the books, and the anticipated celebrity tsunami for the young stars. Is this a great movie in its own right? That’s a tough call, because of this reviewer’s familiarity with the trilogy. That’s something that you, the viewer, will have to decide.

Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.

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