Life is full of stark contrasts in Panem, a dystopian future version of North America that consists of a grandiose Capitol and 12 impoverished outlying districts whose principal reason for being seems to be supplying the opulence and ostentation of its principal metropolis and the government of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Having come into being as a result of a prolonged bloody conflict, this Roman-esque empire portrays itself as benevolent but never hesitates to resort to authoritarian tactics to keep the provinces in line. Its principal means of controlling the population is through a brutal spectacle known as the Hunger Games, a “competition” in which two teenage “tributes” (one male, one female) are selected via compulsory lottery from each of the districts to do battle with one another until only one is left standing, all of it broadcast with much fanfare on TV. It’s “entertainment” akin to the Christians being thrown to the lions, only with more elaborate production values.
When the contestant selection process begins for the 74th annual edition of the Games, young Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is eligible to represent District 12 for the first time, a prospect that frightens her terribly – especially when her name is called. In an act of supreme self-sacrifice, Prim’s older sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers to take the place of her younger sibling. Upon her acceptance as a stand-in, Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are transported to the Capitol for their date with destiny, an odyssey that will bring them more than they ever could have expected.
In preparation for the Games, Katniss and Peeta are trained by former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and their public personas are packaged and promoted by a team of image handlers, including Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks). They’re also paraded – literally – before eager audiences of fanatic spectators in a variety of pre-competition festivities, culminating in appearances on a wildly popular talk show hosted by flamboyant emcee Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).
Despite her initial contempt for the entire proceeding, Katniss’s icy veneer slowly thaws, unwittingly charming fans and potential “sponsors,” benefactors capable of providing valuable assistance during the Games. But, despite Katniss’s big splash with spectators, Peeta makes an equally huge impression when he publicly declares his longstanding unrequited love for his fellow tribute, providing an additional twist on the already-overhyped spectacle, a revelation that’s news even to Katniss. It’s also an unexpected distraction for the unlikely heroine, piling on more stress at a time when it’s needed least.
With the advance festivities complete, the Games get under way in a forested arena fitted with cleverly camouflaged cameras and state-of-the-art playing field modification equipment, all controlled by broadcast director Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), who’s frequently called upon to script the competition in accordance with President Snow’s wishes. And so the fight to survive begins, an ordeal that includes elements of deception, manipulation, alliance, romance, unexpected rule changes, District pride, defiance, ingenuity, fear and hope, a volatile combination of ingredients that keeps viewers – both on- and off-screen – riveted.Given the savage nature of the picture’s principal event, anyone with an ounce of civility probably can’t help but wonder why the population of Panem would so willingly tolerate this grotesque abomination. But then, considering the character of the empire’s culture, with its pervasive mantra of rule by fear, I suppose it’s understandable that the citizens have been scared into state-sanctioned compliance. But must they be?
Fear, for what it’s worth, can be a tremendous motivator to compel a person (or a population) into a desired form of behavior. However, regrettable as that might be, this wouldn’t happen if those being targeted didn’t buy into these circumstances in the first place. For better or worse, the targets’ beliefs materialize the reality they experience – even if they aren’t aware of them – through the conscious creation process, and they must, consequently, live with the fallout of that manifestation – that is, until they decide to change the beliefs driving their creations.In light of that, explorations of fear-based beliefs contribute significantly to the unfolding of the picture’s narrative and its underlying themes. It’s perhaps most prevalent in the film’s depiction of the behavior of Panem’s population. Given the protracted history of conflict that existed prior to the empire’s establishment, a war-weary citizenry was so desperate for peace that it was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve it, even if that meant embracing strong-arm tactics that required trading individual liberty for personal security. The culture of fear that grew out of those circumstances gradually came to be accepted as a necessary evil, a belief that was perpetually reinforced by the state’s practices and the population’s capitulation. (Does any of this sound remotely familiar?)
Omnipresent armed peacekeepers, fenced-in district borders and hovering observation vehicles are all employed to keep citizens in line. But the Games are perhaps the most effective means of control, especially among the young, thanks to the ever-present threat of being selected as a contestant. The fear that this spectacle engenders keeps the population subdued and malleable, with those who go unselected being eternally grateful for the odds having fallen in their favor. Such circumstances serve to chill any thoughts of rising up, questioning authority and asserting individuality. And the state knows this, doing all it can to encourage it.Of course, the population need not be perpetually saddled these conditions. Change is always possible as long as beliefs allowing it are brought into play. And that’s where our heroine and hero come in; they embody the notion of overcoming their fears, not only as a means to promote their own survival but also to provide an inspiring example to the viewers of their ordeal, showing them that they need not remain under the thumb of imperial authoritarianism.
Getting past one’s fears and moving on to live heroically is an aspect of conscious creation philosophy that’s often undervalued, yet it’s crucial to forward movement. Without it, personal growth and development sputters, stifles and stagnates, keeping us from reaching our true potential. As I have often said, those who stay stuck in fear stay stuck in place.
Thankfully, Katniss and Peeta help show their constituents the way forward. In doing so, they also help to show that change is possible for anyone, not just a select few who are at the helm of power. However, achieving this, like overcoming fear, is only possible when one believes it to be true. Through their actions – some of which are highly unconventional – the protagonists set an example, not only for their fellow citizens but also for those of us on the other side of the screen.
The protagonists’ most effective weapon against these circumstances is the hope they inspire, a force whose power even the President recognizes. He’s even willing to allow a little of it to keep the spirit of viewing audiences from becoming totally atrophied (but not enough, of course, to elicit unwanted beliefs and actions). Imagine what’s possible, however, when hope-based beliefs are unleashed in sufficient strength on a population craving to shed their shackles and undermine the tactics of the fear mongers. Now that’s a game changer.While “The Hunger Games” does an excellent job of conveying its main themes, it has its shortcomings, too. The story line, for example, is a bit predictable and derivative, combining elements from a variety of sources we’ve seen before, including “Rollerball” (1975), “The Truman Show” (1998), “Brave New World” (1998) and the reality series Survivor (this may be due to the nature of the source material, but it’s present in the screen version nevertheless). The pacing is also uneven at times, especially in the first half, and some of the production values, like costume design and makeup, are a bit over the top (think “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) meets “The Fifth Element” (1997) meets RuPaul’s Drag Race). And since the book that this is based on is part of a trilogy, sequels are already in the works, leaving viewers of this installment with a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion that’s both somewhat ambivalent and full of unanswered questions.
Despite this, however, the film holds one’s attention well. Even though it’s easy to see how the story will play out, the route it takes to get there is full of suspenseful twists and turns. Its excellent cinematography, visual effects and fine performances (especially by Lawrence, Harrelson and Tucci) make for entertaining viewing. I was also pleased that the picture was not overly gratuitous; given the nature of the narrative, the film easily could have become a nauseating gore-fest, but, thankfully, the filmmakers resisted this temptation, keeping the imagery appropriately in context without becoming visually assaulting.
When faced with the impending loss of a loved one a number of years ago, I was fearful of what was about to come. The attending physician could see this and pulled me aside, saying “when there’s life, there’s hope.” And even though we both knew what the outcome of this situation was going to be, his words helped me conquer my fears to face the ordeal. So it is also with a downtrodden people beset by many perils who become inspired by the actions of a courageous few who give them the hope to press on. “The Hunger Games” delivers on that point, and one can only hope that audiences are paying attention.
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.