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The Hunger Games: The Triumph of Fascism

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

Well, this is the last time I’m going to write about The Hunger Games. It’s really a Lionsgate picture after all, not that far from the Saw films in emotional coldness. Of course, that’s the whole premise of the film, but the calculated superficiality of the piece, coupled with Gary Ross’s scattershot direction  — never using one shot when 57 will do in the action sequences to depict confusion, action, excitement, and slacking off to standard master shot / close-up coverage in the Capitol scenes, replete with Nazi Art Deco surroundings –  never really critiques the fascism that The Hunger Games is supposed to explore. Instead, it celebrates it.

The plot is simple; in the provinces, the workers live in poverty and do all the hard work, sending the fruits of their labors to the citizens — the rulers — of the Capitol. There, the very rich live existences of decadent luxury, and have absolutely no interest in anything other than material goods and the pursuit of pleasure.

Some 74 years earlier, the provinces had revolted against their rulers, and a civil war ensued. Eventually, the ruling forces crushed the rebellion, but now, each year, they pick one young man, and one young woman by lottery from the provinces, and force them all to fight to the death, in a spectacle that is televised worldwide. The film plays up the contrast between the poor and the rich, but in the end comes down in favor of fascism; the only way to play the game is to kill everyone else, and thus reap a life of luxury.

None of the characters in the film, other than the lead, Katniss Everdeen, a “mountain girl” who hunts wild game to feed her mother and younger daughter, and is established from the outset as an independent person, is given any depth at all. The rest of the characters are not so much people as situations; the boyfriend, the sociopathic killer opponent, the mentor, the long-suffering mother, and on and on.

There are two saving graces; while Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen is merely adequate — like Keanu Reeves, she’s just there — her very presence as a resourceful young woman who can take of herself in the clinches, and save her nascent love interest in the process, is refreshing, and since the entire film is centered around her, it’s nice to a see a popular movie that disproves that erroneous theory that women as heroines aren’t potent boxoffice — as anyone knows, the film is racking up record grosses. So that’s something to salvage here.

The other plus factor is the magisterial presence of Donald Sutherland as President Snow, the ruling despot of this Dystopian world. Though he’s only in The Hunger Games for ten minutes at most, and is given some of the most clichéd dialogue imaginable, he strolls off with the film, and in his brief sequences with some of the supporting characters, is incredibly generous with his presence, and makes them look good, as well. Sutherland makes his character believable — he underplays so skillfully that it doesn’t even seen like he’s acting; he’s the real deal.

Stanley Tucci, an equally gifted actor, sadly can do no more than chew up the scenery with his one-dimensional role as TV emcee of the games Caesar Flickerman, a sort of Bert Parks from Hell, whose every gesture is over the top and resolutely insincere. Since Tucci is always “on” in the film, there’s no emotional balance available to him, so he does what he can with the role, investing it with manic energy and a ferociously toothy smile. It would have added depth and resonance to The Hunger Games if we could have had some scenes of him backstage, but all we get is his televised presence, and so here again, the film misses the chance to mine its territory more deeply.

As a grace note, it should be added that although she has only one scene in the film in which she really gets a chance to show off her ability, Isabelle Fuhrman as Clove acts rings around Lawrence — and it’s appropriate that in her one turn of any consequence, she attempts to kill Lawrence, and brings an intensity to her role that is entirely believable. This comes as a shock after wading through so much leaden acting and predictable dialogue — I would have liked to see her in the leading role.

There are other good actors lost in the wreckage of the film, as well: Woody Harrelson ambles through his role as a former winner of the games, who emerges from an alcoholic stupor to coach Katniss to victory, and Lenny Kravitz is also capable as a trainer and advisor to Katniss; yet both are given little to do in the final cut. In the hands of someone like Fritz Lang, the director of the classic film Metropolis, this might have been an uplifting spectacle, which came down against fascism, rather than sending the message that capitulation is the only option. But Gary Ross, a middling talent, is no Fritz Lang – he’s really not even a passable stylist — and so the film moves unevenly from scene to scene, bloated and excessive, much like the denizens of the ruling city itself.

Cynically calculated as a PG-13 film, with its requisite sequences of slaughter so swiftly staged that they appear almost ephemeral, The Hunger Games misses every and any chance to be anything more than what is really is; an efficient killing machine, in which our enjoyment of the murder of a group of young teenagers is the primary reason that the film exists.

So, just as with the Saw films, what’s for sale here is the spectacle of wholesale murder; nothing more, nothing less. The ending also ensures that the games — and thus the sequels — will continue, and that the fascist regime will continue to reinforce its hold on the lives of its citizens, whether rich or poor. The last shot of the film, in which President Snow ascends a flight of stairs to his palatial offices, demonstrates pointedly that the games have worked — they have pleased the populace, and will continue to contain all opposition.

Since Lionsgate has locked up, to the best of my knowledge, all the principals for two more films in the series, and since this one is doing so well, I predict that the series, as flat as it is, will ultimately rack up more than a billion dollars at the box office on a worldwide basis, and that’s all that matters, right? Maybe on the next two films they’ll hang on to the foreign rights. Audiences who think this film works as social commentary or even just as science fiction should go see Battle Royale, and sink their teeth into something real. This is about as deep as the frosting on a Winchell’s donut, and just as nourishing, too.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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