April 02, 2012
Family Film Blogging: The Hunger Games
Posted by Christine Hurt

I briefly saw a headline on some newspaper's blog entitled something to the effect of "Will You Let Your Children Watch The Hunger Games?" I guess I can answer "yes." I went with my ten-year-old last week, and my twelve-year-old is going today (no school).

I presume that the question was based on the fact that the premise of the movie is disturbing. The movie is based on the first book of a trilogy set in a dystopian world governed by a totalitarian regime. (Pretty much every "YA" book that isn't about vampires is about dystopian, totalitarian future worlds. When I was a "YA", all our books were about your parents getting divorced, your mom getting cancer, or your having anorexia.) In this dystopian world, a revolution from all 13 "districts" was quashed by "the Capitol," but as punishment, every year the 12 remaining districts must select 2 teenagers to fight to the death on national TV -- a mash-up of The Lottery and Survivor. So, the premise itself is not very kid-friendly: 24 teenagers having to play a life-or-death game of survival.

However, the book and the movie present a moral that is anti-violence, so the movie has to walk a line between being suspenseful and not glorifying violence. This result is achieved by quick camera-work, cuta-aways, and a few off-camera deaths. But, as most moms can tell you, little kids are affected more by sadness than by violence, and mine got teared up when the youngest participant, Rue, died (aptly named, obviously), even though her death was not gory, just sad.

The movie has been enormously successful, due of course to the popularity of the books among YAs and adults alike. The story features Katniss, a teenage girl who fights to keep her mother and younger sister from starving after the death of her coal-miner father in the poorest, most remote district, District 12. She "volunteers" to be a "tribute" after her little sister gets picked in the lottery, and has fearsome resolve to not die, if not to kill. Her fellow District 12 tribute is Peeta, the doughy son of a baker, who has led a comparatively soft life. However, he is very personable and charismatic, making him at least popular on the TV show. He also concocts the story that he is in love with Katniss to gain viewer support for Katniss and himself, and the reader of the book is left guessing for awhile as to whether he is simply playing the game and whether Katniss is just playing along. Either way would be fine if Katniss' scrappy best friend Gale wasn't tuning in to watch. Besides the love triangle, the other tension is that only one tribute can be the victor, so which one will it be? I won't spoil the ending for the 6 or 7 people out there that haven't read the book.

Even if the movie is enjoyable on its own, true fans won't be satisfied unless the movie honors the book. The movie follows the happenings of the book, but it some challenges. First, much of the book is set in Katniss' mind, and only there do readers learn of the backstory of the politics of the districts, the revolution, and the post-revolution government control. So all this has to come out in other ways. I'm not sure if I hadn't read the books whether I would have gotten the full story. For one thing, the government-engineered "hybrid" animals are never explained and even cut out of the ending. However, the mockingjay is left in (the symbol of District 12 and the title of the second book/movie) without explanation, as are the trackerjackers (yellow jackets on steroids). Also, the movie didn't explain how some kids' names were in the lottery multiple times because they received government rations. We also don't get a good sense of how Katniss hunts to keep their family from starving; it almost look like she sneaks out to hunt with her really attractive friend for fun. Finally, I don't think that Katniss comes off as emotionally stunted and anti-social as she is in the book. In the first few scenes, she is shown being affectionate with Gale and her sister, and so it's then hard to picture her as a girl who has forced herself to become solely interested in survival of herself and her family.

What the movie does do that books don't is depict the action behind the scenes of the Hunger Games -- President Snow wielding pressure on the Game Maker, the Game Maker and staff manipulating outcomes in the Games, Haymitch lobbying for sponsors, and the garish elite in the Capitol enjoying the violent Games from their position of safety and plenty. The books are told from Katniss' perspective, and all she sees is what the players see, even though she accurately suspects most of what is happening outside of the arena. So, did I like it? I didn't dislike it, but I have to admit that I couldn't get into it. I'm not sure why. It could be that the suspense of the book is the outcome of the Games, and once you know that, the steps to get there (which don't deviate from the book) are not that interesting. It could be that the characters were miscast, which a lot of people are saying. The actress who plays Katniss seems to be very good, but I never suspected any chemistry at all between her and the actor who plays Peeta. My son asked me if I was on "Team Peeta" or "Team Gale," and I have to say that at least after the first two books, I was totally on the "Team Peeta" side, but I can't say that after seeing the movie. Or, it could be that the premise of the movie (24 enter, 1 leaves) is just not that fun to watch. It's unpleasant, even when you know the ending. That being said, I'm sure we will be there when Mockingjay opens. At least in that book, the totalitarian regime starts to crack, and there is some hope!

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