Be clear from the start: The Hunger Games is no Twilight. It is no Harry Potter franchise. It is not Battle Royale, either. It is quite a different thing altogether.
[Spoilers follow. If you can’t handle that, why the hell are you still reading?]
I think this first film in the projected series is rather terrific, especially as a pretty faithful adaptation of the original text. What makes its faithfulness worthwhile instead of burdensome (and make no mistake, sometime fidelity to the original source can make for terrible film) is that so much of it was done in order to preserve the dark, powerful core of the narrative.
Once upon a page in Suzanne Collins’ novel (on which the film is based), we get the following exchange between the novel’s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, and her fellow District Twelve tribute, Peeta Mellark, on the last night before the games begin:
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been
ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been
struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of
“Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask. “No, when the
time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I
can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could
think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That
I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
“But you’re not,” I say. “None of us are. That’s how the
This scene is (more or less) faithfully retained in the film, and for good reason. It’s a defining character moment for both Katniss and Peeta, and it also highlights one of the most important ongoing themes in the series: the idea of human dignity as something for which one must struggle (and sometimes fall very, very short of the mark). Katniss, for all her moments of apparent nobility, is not a heroine. In his way, Peeta fits the hero mold far more easily (if only superficially at times). What Katniss is, however, is a flawed, angry, and ultimately marvelous warrior for her own dignity and the dignity of others.
Katniss lives in a world that systematically strips away human dignity (and I mean this in a sort of Kantian way, a sense in which we are, as human beings, to be respected as setters of our own ends). It does so in every way possible, ranging from the vain emptiness of life in the Capitol to the subjection and starvation of District 12. The Games themselves are a control mechanism to hold a population in thrall with everything from schadenfreude and a greed for spectacle to the fear of death itself. This is the mythos of the country of Panem, in which those Games are contextualized as both a punishment and a kind of reverent “celebration.” Panem’s peace has been mortgaged (how fitting that “death” is a part of that word in this case) at a price everyone knows, and the payments keep getting higher. Human relationships are poisoned by the bill always due.
Katniss is not Harry Potter. She is not on a grand adventure in the company of the good, growing up into a heroic role. She is not The Girl Who Lived. She is more deeply damaged from the start than Harry ever was, and while her world has no Dementors in it, it is infinitely crueller insofar as it has human beings in it. Note to the Potter fans: I’m not trying to diminish young Potter and friends here. Katniss’ story is simply a much, much different kind of story. We get to watch Harry grow up and grow well, and it’s sweet and moving and heroic. Katniss is old before she ever turns 16, and there is nothing heroic or exceptional about it in her world. Winning the Hunger Games is a much darker victory than defeating Lord Voldemort. There is, actually, no victory here. Even by the end of the third novel, “victory” is not perfect or right, and the real challenge that Katniss must always face remains: how can she be and live with herself as a human being?
Katniss is also no Bella Swan, essentially an empty character caught between one would-be abuser and another (let’s not lie to ourselves about the relationships in that story, huh? They’re sick). Her negotiation of her relationships with Peeta and Gale is not a romance, not some vain triangle. It’s just one more bit of the poison her system’s got to handle, as she herself comes to understand in the very end of Mockingjay:
Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments
when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the
flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of
mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort
me. And eventually his lips. On the night I feel that thing
again, the hunger that overtook me on the beach, I know this
would have happened anyway. That what I need to survive is
not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty
of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring.
The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction.
The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our
losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give
So after, when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not
real?” I tell him, “Real.”**
I truly hope that the next films in the series keep the promise that makes this last paragraph before the epilogue possible. The first has already done so in form, by refusing to make a spectacle of the spectacle of the Games and its consequences. It has done so, too, by refusing the sexualizing spectacle that is so normal as to be expected in contemporary US major-market filmmaking. To make usual spectacle of this (lurid or violent or sexual) would be the worst possible betrayal of the story. Let’s hope they stick to this formula (which, given the brilliant casting, should be easy) for the future installments.
*Collins, Suzanne (2009-09-01). The Hunger Games (Kindle Locations 1757-1762). Scholastic Books. Kindle Edition.
**Collins, Suzanne (2010-08-24). Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games) (Kindle Locations 4916-4921). Scholastic Books. Kindle Edition.