I saw it opening weekend, of course, but I’ve held off on writing my review until I could see it a second time. (And take three receipt-backs’ worth of notes in the dark, because I’m that nerd girl.)
a book where the desperately poor fight and struggle simply to survive while they produce material goods for the upper classes. …A book where even the working folk among the top strata of society live in luxury unimaginable to the people at the bottom, a luxury whose every bite of food and scrap of cloth relies on the direst poverty of the people at the bottom. A book in which the malicious and cruel control by the people at the absolute top would be unmaintainable without the complacency of individuals — often genuinely nice, kind, well-meaning — lower down in the upper echelons.
In other words, I thought I was looking at a vicious condemnation of us.
So what worried me most as I went into the movie was that this subversive condemnation would be stripped away in the interest of box office success. Overall, it succeeded far better than I feared but less well than I dreamed. (What else is new?)
Note: this review is a world of SPOILERS for both the first book and the movie. It’s also probably a bit scattered. Did I mention I’m working from three receipt-backs’ worth of scribbles?
We have met the Capitol and they is us?
Wes Bentley (and his gorgeously sculpted facial hair) was perfect as Seneca. He’s young, handsome, gently mannered, stylishly but not outlandishly dressed — sympathetic through and through. But his job is finding creative, entertaining ways to murder children, and in the end he’s killed not because he stood up to Snow in some sort of heroic reversal, but because he didn’t do that job effectively enough.
I wish all the Capitol citizens had been styled like him, instead of like Willy Wonka’s bizarre sidekicks. My friend Rebecca mentions that she found the Capitol dress “queer-coded,” and I definitely agree — they’re flaming, and not in a Girl on Fire sort of way. They are also “alien” and “Other” — these are not styles the audience will covet or identify with. The clothes are described in the books as colorful and over-the-top, yes, but that could have been done in a way that retained the crucial identification of the audience with the Capitol.
Or maybe I’m wrong. The creators of Hunger Games-marketed makeup and nailpolish certainly think fans will “hope for these products in their survival packs” (see Peggy Orenstein’s post on “The Greed Games”). That makes the Capitol-is-us point way better than the movie itself ever could, for anyone with a halfway developed sense of irony. I wish I believed that included more of us.
Part of making the audience uncomfortable was forcing us to recognize our role as voyeurs. We’re watching a movie about a reality TV show in which children kill each other, which means we’re watching children kill each other, and we’re there with our popcorn and candy and Team Whoever shirts enjoying it. The movie didn’t do so well with the “our comfortable lives rest on the misery of 99% of the world” part of identifying us with the Capitol, but this part I think they almost nailed.
The opening scene in which Cesar, the host, interviews Seneca about how the Games have been healing for Panem is perfect. They almost had me believing it. It lines up just right with the “war, terrible war” video the Districts have to watch at the Reaping, which casts the Games as a “pageant of honor,” and with the patriotic music that plays every night during the roster of the fallen — according to that music, they really are honored tributes.
And of course every time Cesar is on screen, we recognize his frivolous but comforting reality show patter. We have watched reality show hosts coax flirtatiously inane commentary out of gorgeously dressed contestants a thousand times Stanley Tucci mimics this perfectly, so I momentarily forgot that I was watching children who are about to fight each other to death and then was horrified at myself as soon as I remembered; repeat ad nauseum whenever he was on screen.
The Gameroom (which looked fantastic, even if it didn’t make much sense to see the Muttations created digitally rather than in a genetic lab) also reminded us that this was a game, not a forest survival story. I particularly liked how the Muttations walked away from Cato at the end as soon as Katniss shot him — they aren’t real animals; they don’t care about their freshly killed meat.
The thing we desperately needed more of was scenes of the fictional audience — both in the Capitol and in the Districts. It was too easy to get caught up in the action scenes in the woods and forget, until a scene of Cesar or the Gameroom reminded us, that the tributes’ every single action was being scrutinized by millions of viewers. Scenes of the tributes’ families would have been heart-wrenching, and scenes of the Capitol viewers looking like our friends on American Idol night could have been incisive.
A few perfect scenes
- Katniss’ goodbye scene with her mom was appropriately harsh, given how angry Katniss is about how her mother has failed her and Prim. It connected well for me with this very nicely done essay about Katniss and domestic violence.
- Katniss getting in the tube on her way to the Arena: Jennifer Lawrence perfectly captured that sense of being trapped and terrified, but having no option but to go forward.
- In he pig scene, where Katniss displays her skill with a bow and arrow before the Gamemakers, she came off as pissed off, not calculating — that’s crucial for her character, especially without an internal monologue to tell us these things. I’ve heard some valid criticisms, but overall I think Lawrence aced this role.
The things I’m leaving out
I don’t feel like I need to discuss the racist response to Cinna’s and especially Rue’s casting, because so many people have already done it so well. I am of course disgusted, though not as surprised as I’d like to be, that so many people felt that Rue’s death was less affecting because she’s black. That’s gross and shameful and I’d rather not dignify it any further, since my response mostly consists of incoherent rage.
As for the romance angle, I’m leaving that out of this post because I’ll address it in part 2! I’ve assembled a crack team of guinea pigs: intelligent, articulate adults who are almost complete tabula rasas about the books. They’ve agreed to submit to my grilling after they watch the movie. (Perhaps they didn’t know what they were getting into. Don’t worry, I’ll buy them some beers.) If you have questions for the guinea pigs, please ask in a comment!