Directed and adapted by Gary Ross, The Hunger Games deviates from its literary counterpart penned by Suzanne Collins. The difference is not so much in the events of the story. Those stay, for the most part, the same. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) sacrifices herself to save her sister, Prue, whose name is unluckily called as the girl tribute from Section 12 during the reaping. Katniss is an excellent archer and savvy, but she gives Section 12 a chance at winning for the first time in a generation.
The most apparent difference in these versions is the focus. Collins often focused on the violence that transitions from visceral and painful in the arena during the games to the mundane when viewed on television screen throughout the land “once known as North America.” Here, her commentary on violence also met a commentary on the pervasiveness of reality television, and how, perhaps, it leads to desensitization, or an endemic subculture of exhibitionism.
Ross, on the other hand, shies away from the focus on violence – the book is more violent in its gritty descriptions of impaling and amputation – and shines a brighter light on propaganda and illusion. To be fair, Collins establishes the conflict of duplicity within her text, particularly in the conversations between Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch, but these are often overdone and seem to be a method to capture the young audience’s fancy for love. However, Ross goes a bit further with his examination of illusion and facades, emphasizing the agenda of Seneca Crane, the Games’ producer and the lengths to which everyone goes to really sell the idea that the odds are “ever in your favor.”
Throughout, this tag line is contradicted. The contestants are dressed and posed like dolls by their stylists and dystopian-day image consultants. Each is monitored closely and heroes and villains are created – both for the theatrical audience and the audience watching the Games from their districts. These labels are created through voting and measuring as if they were part of the Vegas line. Katniss, an 11, is a threat before she begins and thus a target for the others. She’s also crafted into a favorite character for the audience, one that might include a potential love story.
What’s most interesting about this film is the Nazi aesthetic that Ross seems to employ. As the young men and woman gather in District 12 to await the drawing, the scene is eerily reminiscent of one from Schindler’s List, or any other concentration-camp-centric film. Each person is queued and dressed in gray rags. They wait to have their identities confirmed – and in this case, their fingers pricked, using their blood as an identifier. The suggestion here is that all of the blood is on file and those in each District have already been singled out and divided according to their race, status, or creed.
The stage where the drawing takes place signifies a veritable, public execution as if it were a future form of the guillotine. Denizens are brought to the town center to breathe a sigh of relief for their own reprieve while they watch the essential death walk of those who are chosen. Eleven of the twelve living to climb the steps of the podium will end up dead, a symbol that each person not chosen has been given a pass, and those who are chosen are subject to the whims of the Capitol.
Furthermore, the guards who escort the tributes through the Capitol and to and from the Games arena wear red badges on their arms that eerily echo those that bear the Nazi Swastika. The emblem is different, but the visual signifier is uncanny – literally and in the Freudian sense of the word. Here, we recognize something familiar and grim, but its location is misplaced and unfamiliar. It’s set in the future but recalls the past. It’s set in North America, but echoes black and white footage of 1940’s Germany. Something else that can’t be ignored is the Capitol’s crest, which doesn’t appear in any of Collins’ novels: a black eagle, one that is an amalgam of a silhouetted American Bald Eagle, our symbol that holds arrows and portends freedom, and the Nazi eagle that bore the aforementioned swastika. This combination is disturbing in that it juxtaposes the familiar and the infamous, but more so because it speaks to violence and propaganda.
The show and the politics within The Hunger Games are built on clever semantics and rhetoric. The tributes are walking dead. The judging is arbitrary, and the Games are rigged. Creatures are created, contestants are guided to and from areas through producer-controlled cannons that shoot fireballs, or trees that topple from the push of a button.
Both versions of this tale are intriguing and poignant in their own right. What’s also refreshing is that Ross directed this film for those who haven’t read the book. Throughout, I was curious as to how he was going to exposit things that were so easily divulged to the reader through Katniss’ inner monologue. In the film, this is done rather flawlessly through Caeser Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the Games’ Master of Ceremonies. As if we were watching ESPN 9, Hunger Games Channel, Flickerman pops in and out like a commentator, filling us in on minutia and allowing the narrative to progress.
The one thing I could have gone without is the hand-held conceit. I understand the film is partially a commentary on reality television and what we might perceive as “real,” but hand-held cameras have never and do not currently showcase “reality.” When we walk or run, our vision does not shake, tremble, and whirl about us. There are moments when this is appropriate: a drug trip, a bout with dehydration, an asthma attack, being thrown down a hill. Aside from that, this nauseating method of photography should be used sparsely.