Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

The Hunger Games PosterSpoiler Alert…

The flamboyant show-host Caesar Flickerman has his alive-and-well, star-crossed lovers — Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark — on stage together for their first interview since surviving the Hunger Games. Caesar asks the right questions — the ones we’re just dying to know. The bright lights are shining, the cameras are rolling, and we — uh, I mean the Capitol studio audience — look on with great anticipation. Can you believe it? They both survived the Games! It’s, like, the most amazing love story. Do you think their kisses in the cave were just for show? They’re sitting really close together on the love seat. Peeta reiterates his long-time love for Katniss. Then, Caesar asks what was going through Katniss’s mind when Peeta was near death. She responds, “I don’t know, I just… couldn’t bear the thought of… being without him.”

(Cheers, joyful sighs, romantic glee, and mild euphoria spread throughout the audience. Can you guess which one?)


The post-games interview scene, which was brilliant in a way, came off almost exactly like an “After the Final Rose” episode from The Bachelor. Except, instead of two young, good-looking “in love” contestants publicly inaugurating their relationship with spurned lovers in their wake, 22 dead adolescents didn’t quite make it to Caesar’s couch. And, because of the nearly identical, unified response between my screening’s audience and the Capitol audience, it’s the moment from my viewing of The Hunger Games that I keep returning to reflectively. Initially, I took it as a sign of satiric brilliance: the young adults that the novel and film are geared toward had made Suzanne Collins’ point for her. Of course, not everyone reacted in Capitol-like fashion in these moments, and a film is not always responsible for wayward reaction. But whether or not the film somehow encourages inhumane entertainment through an embellished love triangle that overshadows any subtext having to do with war violence, dystopian regimes, or the entrapments of “amusing ourselves to death” is still a question for me.

Thus, my response to The Hunger Games is yet a mix of positive, negative, and undecided — and, in terms of the film’s timeline, in that order. At best, it’s the franchised young adult fiction adaptation that we desperately needed to help erase Twilight from memory. At worst, The Hunger Games — in its attempt to satirize lust for spectacle in a dystopian setting — delivers more on spectacle than effective satire. Yet, for the mature reader, much of Collins’s novel is interesting enough, and the same is true of Gary Ross’ mostly-faithful adaptation. On the whole, the film’s first act imagines the novel well, achieving just the right tonal feel of drab deprivation in District 12, the dread of the Reaping, and the futuristic, lavish oddity that is the pre-Games preparation at the Capitol.

From the time Katniss volunteers to replace her young sister in the Games to the moment when she, shaking, is raised up into the Arena in the final countdown, Ross’s depiction of the material is at its most effective. This is a credit to the casting, which is superb, particularly for some of the supporting roles. Woody Harrelson nearly steals the show as Haymitch, the sometimes-despised, sometimes-loveable drunkard who lends his expertise when he’s aware enough to be available. Likewise, Stanley Tucci is devilishly good as Caesar, the Capitol’s reality television host who has the flamboyance to manipulate audiences and ignite spectacle.

In some ways, the film naturally elevates the source material; we’re treated to perspectives that, in the book, are overly-reliant on Katniss’s limited imagination and description. Especially intriguing is the vantage we get outside of the Games. For instance, we catch a brief glimpse of Haymitch persuading some potential sponsors to support Katniss while she is fighting to stay alive in the Arena. And one of my favorite additions to the film adaptation is its use of “announcers” for the Games, which functions as a clever explanation device for certain elements of the fictional world that are difficult to translate to film. Which is all to say: we get a better sense of the production going on during the Games. Rather than having Katniss explain her sense of the calculated entertainment based on her experience of watching the Games through the years, the film depicts the first-hand perspective of it, reinforcing the Games qua “reality” television.

However, Ross’s film begins to falter right about the time Katniss discovers camouflaged Peeta. From here to the cave of the love triangle, we’re treated to a barrage of unintentionally comedic moments. To be sure, the novel’s depiction of the cave isn’t exactly cheese-free, but the film overplays the love triangle in comparison to the book. Having not read the sequels, I can’t say if this was groundwork being laid, but I’m guessing it’s the case that the love triangle becomes central.

The film’s reality television element governs its effectiveness in avoiding implication in kids-killing-kids as entertainment, and I fear it doesn’t go far enough. We needed a little less of Katniss’s brave arrow slinging and fewer cutaway shots of Gale’s heartbreak — heck, a little less easy emotion-conjuring by picking on the 12-year-olds — and more shots, for instance, of an audience cheering at the sight of kills. More of this emphasis might have been a more effective foil to the temptation to enjoy Caesar’s interview as much as the Capitol’s live audience.

Unless, of course, the more pronounced point is the Twilight-style love triangle. In which case, all of that other stuff about war violence, reality television, and dystopian regimes seems too secondary, and not quite weighty enough. I love the emphasis in the book and film that a martyr is the greatest threat to the whole regime. President Snow doesn’t want a martyr. He needs a reality TV star who inspires just enough hope in the working class to keep them subdued and working, but not enough hope that they rise up. I can’t help but wonder if Games has its enthusiasts due to a deep-seated preference for the celebrity over the martyr.


  1. It was a very well made movie (for the most part) in my opinion. They did a wonderful job in bringing the emotion into the audience. I bawled when rue and the redheaded boy died. What irritated me was all the stupid teens (sounds really bad coming from me considering I am one). They all cheered when they one, or when someone died. They all missed the deep meaning of the whole thing, they thought and reacted like the capitol as you said. Instead of hating the whole games and routing for the rebellion, they took sides for the game. The games are sick and thats what the book portrays, the plot of the books is the people taking back there freedom, and putting and end to the hunger games. The plot is not about who wins! Yes of course we are happy they won! But not because 22 other kids died! This was also a wake up call… Who knows where the U.S. will be in 200 years. We might be here or close. But this fact flew over the heads of most of the audience .

  2. I think this trilogy’s reception will be very interesting. As the books go on, they give the reader fewer and fewer stand-up-and-cheer moments, replacing them with (at their happiest) quiet, elegiac victories and (more frequently) unexpected horrors. And yes, the biggest shock in each of the following films is inseparable from the love-triangle story. The love triangle’s conclusion has more to do with politics, grief, and morality than it has to do with physical appearance or “chemistry.”

    I honestly hope that the studio execs make the following two movies in their entirety before releasing either of them; unless major changes are made, the critique of violence becomes more central, in the form of Katniss’s horror at everything that unfolds and her psychological destruction as a result of moral anguish. This may divide cinema audiences who were able to overlook the evils of the Capitol in the first movie.

  3. Intriguing Nick. It’s always tricky trying to “read” a movie based on the reaction of a given audience. The crowd I saw The Hunger Games with didn’t respond as strongly to the celebrity/romance elements, so I didn’t come away with the same impression you did. At the same time, I remember the qualms I had over Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (qualms similar to the ones you express here) being confirmed by the cheering, irony-oblivious audience I saw that movie with. I guess this is part of the mystery of such a communal art form (or will be as long as we have theaters).

  4. Hey Josh,

    Yeah, I definitely recognize the problematic nature of invoking an audience argument like I did. I wouldn’t, you know, criticize Swift if my freshman student was offended at his suggestion to eat children.

    So, in this case, I did try to be more suggestive than definitive, and I think, given the circumstances–the blurred lines between entertainment, violence and the meta-nature of an audience being entertained by the very element being satirized–it was worth exploring. The conclusion wasn’t as much solely based on the reaction, as much as the reaction was a kind of anecdotal confirmation of a qualm I had based on the material.

    It just made for a nice introduction to put up front!

    Regarding diverse reactions to those moments, I’ve no doubt that there are probably some screenings that this kind of reaction was non-existent. Yet, I’m interested in the reactions to the film of its target audience: teens/young adults. Why have THEY made it the highest grossing opening weekend non-sequel ever? It’s an interesting question that I have my suspicions about.

    Thanks for commenting.

  5. “Once men thouoght that, when God was dead, all would be well. Now we know better”. It is an insult to the memory of pagan Rome to asset that they woudl have had children in their Areans. Their gladiators were pettery criminals, debtors, and other unfortunates. People were put into the area as an alternative to immediate execution – whcih frequently consisted of flogging followed by cruxification. The death of god means, as Nietzsche explains, that all the benefits that had been enjoyed from the Judeo-Pagan tradition would disappear, as their foundation would have crumbled. The Hunger Games shows us a possible future in which we can be entertained to death. When adolescents cheer the death of peers presented on the screen, I can only wonder that their parent’s have been teaching them. We see the rise of a whole class of persons whose profession it is to re-institute infanticide, with a special eye to weeding out defective lifeb before it is born. You don’t think the Spartans would have used amniocentisis to abort the unfit? When money that could have been routed directly to the poor is consumed by government beauracracies, Education dumbed down to guarantee an increasingly ignorant and incapable working class, Liberals lift their hands in the air and claim that was not what they intedned. We do not want to forggive the inhabitants of the Capitol, for they know exactly what they are doing. The Hunger Games shouldbe read by any one who calls themselves Christian, to know what is at stake.

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