The catchphrase ‘May the odds be ever in your favour’ is spoken by the powerful elite in The Hunger Games to strategically give a glimmer of hope, but not too much, to the oppressed and poor citizens who are subject each year to a brutal televised game in this futuristic parable. The phrase is uttered before the reaping where one girl and one boy from the twelve districts are selected by lottery to take part in the game, and it’s also uttered during the preparation and then right before the contest, where the 24 children are expected to fight to the death. It’s a taunting and cruel catchphrase because it implies the fate of the children is to do with luck, when in fact the games are really a ruthlessly orchestrated public event designed by the ruling class to keep the non-ruling classes distracted and fearful. When Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to become a ‘tribute’ for her district in place of her sister, she along with male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) join the 22 other tributes in the Capitol where they are taught to kill, survive and to put on a good show.
Presumably one of the challenges with making a film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s popular 2008 Young Adult novel The Hunger Games was how to present the novel’s critique of violent spectacle without the film itself providing moments of violent spectacle. Other similarly themed films where a futuristic incarnation of the ancient Roman gladiator contests was fused with reality television faced a similar problem. The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987), Battle Royale (Koushun Takami, 2000) and Series 7: The Contenders (Daniel Minahan, 2001) were all set in either the future or an alternate reality where disenfranchised people are forced to take part in a violent competition where they must fight for their survival. The Running Man is the simplest of the mentioned films as there is a strongly defined good guys versus bad guys narrative, and the film is unapologetically providing violent spectacle for the cinema audiences. Similarly to The Hunger Games, Battle Royale contains a scenario where the delineations between good and bad characters are not so clear cut, since they are all teenagers from a randomly chosen school class and forced to fight to the death in a large outdoor area until there is only one survivor. Battle Royale also provides moments of violent spectacle, but in a far more uncomfortable way than The Running Man since the presentation of violence in Battle Royale juxtaposed with the films’s social critique does compel the film viewer to ask themselves what it is they are enjoying.
However, the film with the most in common with The Hunger Games is the lesser-known Series 7: The Contenders since both films undermine the voyeuristic appeal of the violence. The Hunger Games spends close to an hour establishing the world of the film, its characters and the film’s themes before the first scene of conflict. It’s what is now almost an old fashioned approach to narrative development where the film spends its time building up to the main action rather than cutting to the chase as soon as possible. A film that was more overtly focused on providing the audience with a thrilling action-packed ride would have included an action scene much earlier to establish the tone. Instead, The Hunger Game waits and when it delivers it does so with disorientating quick edits and muted sound to create the sensation of the violence being sickening and confusing. For the rest of the film the acts of violence, which are crucial to the film’s narrative, are sudden and blunt, often off screen and never glorified. Thus The Hunger Game effectively establishes itself as a drama about the spectacle of violence rather than being a spectacle of violence itself.
The production design combines modern and classic motifs and references in order to make several statements about class, exploitation and social inequity. The scenario of a populace having to sacrifice its young to appease a higher authority occurred in many ancient legends, including the Ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur who was sent youths to devour. The modern day version of this myth as depicted in The Hunger Games is the lottery based reaping, which could also be viewed as a parable for young people being conscripted or manipulated into fighting a foreign war started by the older generation. However, The Hunger Games also explores the scarified youth theme by looking at the way in which young people are groomed to conform to an idealised image so that their youth and beauty can be commodified and exploited. Not only are the tributes trained in how to kill and survive, but they are coached to be media savvy in order to project the type of image that will earn them sponsorship. They are constantly being looked at and scrutinised and the very tight cinematography often creates a claustrophobic effect by only shooting in close up and medium close up. Shots from a greater distance are often filmed from the corner of a room so that it unconsciously gives the impression of closed-circuit television surveillance.
The ceremonial aspects of the games are a mixture of Ancient Roman and Nazi German iconography with modern day red carpet events. The vast open spaces, eagle insignias and neoclassic design captures the appearance of a totalitarian state attempting to awe its people with displays of power, while the focus on the clothes worn by the tributes echoes the vacuous commentary that takes place during events such as award ceremonies. The combined effect is like that of the gladiators of Ancient Rome and modern day reality show contestants. The tributes are briefly huge celebrities, designed to win the favour of the public in the short term until they are disposed of. It’s a highly subversive critique of mass entertainment that expresses Noam Chomsky’s argument about how the hype surrounding spectator sport is used to distract people from engaging in issues of real importance and therefore keeping them subservient through ignorance.
The representation of class divisions is overt with the wealthy members of society living in the opulent Capitol city while the poorer members of society, who are selected for the games, come from the surrounding districts. The bleak and improvised rural setting contrasts with the high tech and garish world of the Capitol where the dominant fashion is a grotesque fusion of Max Headroom type designer punk and the Rococo style fashion favoured by the French aristocracy before the French Revolution.
The final ingredient in what makes The Hunger Games so compelling is Katniss. Unlike the heroes of many other Young Adult novel and film franchises, she has not got any natural gifts or special powers that have been bestowed upon her magically, nor is she simply driven by a romantic crush, and the film even self-reflexively includes a romantic subplot to comment on audience expectations. Katniss is completely self-made, the skills she possesses are the result of experience and she undermines the machinations of the games by using ingenuity, cunning and humanity to survive and care for others. The overall combination of smart social commentary, compelling narrative, clever yet unobtrusive film style and the integrity to not be what it is critiquing, results in a very impressive film.