Tony feels peckish.
The Hunger Games was a phenomenon that technically passed me by, but it was always one where what little I heard promised good things. Unlike the generally loathesome Twilight books and movies, Suzanne Collins’ trilogy for the most part made people say good and interesting words – ‘intelligent’ was one, ‘dystopian’ another, and ‘allegorical’ a third. I’m always up for an intelligent dystopian allegory, so I finally cracked open the four-movie Hunger Games box set and sat down to watch.
The original Hunger Games seems entirely to repay those interesting words people use about it. It’s a complete world drawn in broad strokes, a dictatorship with a neatly retrospective culture and very little taste – everything has a Roman twinge to it, and the Hunger Games themselves are a kind of televised annual forced reparation by the losing ‘side’ in an uprising to the ‘winning’ side, a Battle Royale-style slaughter of innocents in a computer-generated but entirely deadly ‘arena.’ The movie version of this first book is the most satisfying overall, the direction by Gary Ross taking its time to set up its world with the kind of shivering tension you’d expect in a Schindler’s List, and the horrifying inevitability of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. It feels like the most successful because it delivers most succinctly what’s on the tin – it makes us care about the oppressed people in the twelve districts of Panem, shows us the gaudy, leechlike nastiness of the Capitol and its people (Stanley Tucci turning in a great grotesque as Caesar Flickerman, the ‘host’ of the Games, and Elizabeth Banks delivering an Effie Trinket that makes you hope, if you haven’t read the books, that she catches a stray arrow from Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen). It shows us the nature of our heroes too, Katniss stepping into danger to save her younger sister Prim, Peeta Mellark acting like an initially somewhat hopeless mooning puppy trailing in Katniss’ wake. But, and this is crucial, once the Hunger Games themselves begin, Ross lets them be the fundamental focus of events. The world of President Snow (Donald Sutherland seeming to rather enjoy himself as the softly-spoken overlord – any space in a future Star Wars movie for a smiling Sith, Hollywood?) continues outside the Games, but there’s not much focus on it, the action centring for the most part on the Games, and the lessons we can learn from them. There’s a faintly horrible revelation in all this about the lengths to which people will go to stay alive – or to win a reality show – that makes us look at our own civilisation with new eyes.
But for all that the focus on the Games is what makes The Hunger Games the most rewatchable and coherent of the movies, taking the series as a whole, there are flaws in the plotting of the first instalment that hamper the movies that follow.
Catching Fire, the second movie, shows Snow as determined to crush the pest that is Katniss Everdeen, who seems to pick up nicknames like care packages – ‘the girl on fire’ and ‘the Mockingjay’ both come to the fore in this movie. The idea of a ‘Champion of Champions’ Hunger Games, pitting the recent winners, Everdeen and Mellark, against some of the Games’ best and most ruthless victors, and bringing in a new Gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensby (Philip Seymour Hoffman feeling more interesting and convincing in his role as a bad guy than he goes on to be when the tables are turned) is so clearly a panic move it undermines the seeming strength of the Capitol. More particularly, the focus in the first movie on the Games themselves means there’s a great deal of context-building to do for the world outside the arena walls in all three of the remaining movies – that world isn’t especially well bedded in during the first movie, meaning the second movie has a less balanced feel, the Games themselves having an ‘add-on’ feel and in fact ending before there’s any single winner. The end of the movie at the moment of Katniss’ grand act of arrow-based defiance isn’t given the build-up it deserves, so it leaves a ‘what-the-hell?’ on viewers’ lips that isn’t really improved at all in the third movie, part one of Mockingjay.
It’s hardly an original observation that Mockingjay doesn’t feel like it needs two movies to tell its story. Not having read the books as yet, it’s impossible to judge whether it was genuinely felt necessary to split it into two halves, or whether it was simply a case of trend-following after Harry Potter and Twilight. What can certainly be said though is that Mockingjay in both its halves is too damn long, and focuses on what feels like too much ‘i-dotting’ and ‘t-crossing’ on the way to a grand revolution. That’s more particularly the case in part one, where the existence of a fully-fledged and well-armed resistance movement in the previously-thought-defunct District 13 is delivered almost entirely on the basis that there needs to be one to advance the plot. Katniss’ involvement with this mob of would-be Snow-topplers seems to push the not-unreasonable idea that modern revolutions are won and lost by propaganda wars as much as they are by actual revolutionaries, but does it make for entertaining viewing? Not really. There are reasons why The Empire Strikes back spends a lot of its time cutting the hell away from the rebels in their plotting and fills the screen with a crotchety green Muppet, and Mockingjay part one is light on puppets (if you don’t count Katniss herself), but tries to fill its screen time with propaganda battles, people hiding underground and an occasional, well-staged atrocity. Of all the movies, the fundamental lack of action in this movie makes it probably the hardest slog, and to be absolutely fair, you could probably have cut a great deal of it, had a slightly longer ‘part two’ and ended up with a much tighter trilogy.
Mockingjay part two tries hard to recapture the action pulse, and has a lot more meat to feed us as an audience, the battle for the Capitol even being dubbed ‘the 76th Hunger Games,’ (in lieu of any real mention of that year’s actual event), but, as was always a danger in a movie with one or two big battles and a lot of moping about, there’s a sense of ‘hurry up and wait’ about it that frequently undercuts what is an increasingly tenuous Hunger Games vibe. Does it do its duty by the likes of other great dystopian stories? Certainly – there are some solid truths to be gleaned from the Animal Farmlike decisions made in closed rooms by a cabal of The Important, and certainly as the end nears, there’s a sense of not being able to tell those who take over from those who existed before, especially as the former ‘rebel,’ President Coin, orders one last Hunger Games to dispose of those who are inconvenient, but in terms of the battle sequences, there’s a lot of fuss and then nothing, some of the consequences feeling like they come late in the day, when they could have been used to better effect had they come earlier, as motivators to Katniss and the revolution. The very end succeeds in bringing Katniss’ journey full circle, as she fades back into relative obscurity after being the spark and the poster-child for revolution, though it seems rather conveniently to skip over survivor-guilt and psychological trauma with a single sequence in which Katniss, finally ready to be something she’s never been before, climbs into a bed, her choice of relative normality over superstardom and revolutionary zeal acting as the closing of one chapter of her life and the opening of one which is supposed to be better for everyone, most particularly her.
It's a moment that doesn’t especially convince, leaving the ending of the movie and the series feeling a little hollow, especially after two movies more or less dedicated to the action of toppling a regime.
Overall, my first experience of the Hunger Games movies was an essay in diminishing returns. The first movie took a great premise and made it quiver with tension, terror and sociological allegory. But, due to its necessary focus, it hamstrung the three remaining movies, at least one of which didn’t really need to be there at all. It left them playing catch-up, and for the most part struggling to do so. The Hunger Games series is one good movie, with three sequels that feel more and more obligatory and less and less enjoyable the further along you go.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk