Fortune has smiled with a full set of teeth upon the film version of The Hunger Games, and did not wait until opening day to flash the gleam. Had you devoted an idle moment, in the weeks before the release, to a search for online news of the movie, you would have turned up headlines such as “Bookseller Prepped for The Hunger Games Movie Debut,” “Hunger Games Feeds Big Rally in Lionsgate Stock,” “Officials: Hunger Games Boost to NC Tourism, Economy” and (for the really forward-thinking) “Will The Hunger Games Film Franchise Only Have Three Films?” The money volcano was going to erupt; crowds in the millions gathered to watch it blow. Nothing was left to decide, except for how many years the molten coin might pour down.
Which is an interesting question, given that the story concerns starving teenagers compelled to kill one another as entertainment for a captive public.
For those readers who have not kept up with young-adult bestsellers, I should explain that Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy imagines a dystopian future in which North America is ruled from a neo-Roman capital in the Rocky Mountains. The better to bleed its provinces, this capital (or, as Collins has it, Capitol) forces them each year to send children to die in a televised gladiatorial contest.
Collins’s political allegory is stirring yet vague, as if crafted to offend no party of book buyers. For readers on the left, The Hunger Games can be about an imperial power grinding down the working class; on the right, about localities in thrall to the dictatorship of Washington. Collins’s narrator, who comes from a coal-mining town in Appalachia, is similarly all-purpose. Young Katniss fulfills the current demand for female characters who are strong, independent, equipped to kill and greatly worried about whether guy number one really likes them or is just saying it, and what guy number two might think about that.
But however much the trilogy may double-talk its readers, it is a product of the book trade and so has limited potential for self-compromise. Only a movie (or rather a motion picture event) might call into existence the very dynamic that it pretends to criticize, and convert dismay over a spectacle of slaughter (which we all of course deplore) into a widespread celebration of riches and power. Here, then, was the one slight inconvenience that Lionsgate Films had to suffer in ending the buildup and finally opening the film. It unavoidably allowed people to judge whether the movie of The Hunger Games was a hunger game itself.
As one of those people, I may now put cynicism aside and say there really is more to this movie than the usual short circuit in the pop culture generating plant. I make the judgment with pleasure but no great surprise, having been rewarded for my confidence in the film’s writer-director, Gary Ross.
He has been coming out with only one picture a decade, but each has been memorable. In 1998 he directed Pleasantville, one of the few movies to have said anything smart about Americans’ fascination with the televised past. In 2003 came Seabiscuit, an exemplary drama about hard-luck cases in the Great Depression and the sometimes redemptive influence of sports. As this résumé suggests, Ross has thought a little about class divisions and the disillusionments of the young, about physical struggle and the uses of fantasy. He was the right filmmaker to direct The Hunger Games, and in a turn of events exceptional in blockbuster cinema, he got the job.
You see almost at once how he’s sharpened the story, without betraying the fans who want every plot detail in place. When the beaten-down coal-mining families of District 12 are summoned to give up their children, they must first watch a promotional film for the Hunger Games, produced in the style of a “Morning in America” political commercial and narrated in a familiar baritone, at once avuncular and bullying, that sounds much like Ronald Reagan but eventually proves to be Donald Sutherland. The architecture of the Capitol, which the book describes without specificity, takes on full fascist grandeur in the movie, complete with monumental colonnades and eagle insignias. (This being a technocratic American fascism, there is also a gladiatorial structure apparently designed by a student of Frank Gehry.)