Six Damn Fine Degrees #17: The Hunger Games (2012)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

You can dismiss it as juvenile dross, and you would not be entirely wrong, but The Hunger Games (2012) gets one thing admirably right: it is very able to balance its theme of mass media voyeurism showcasing a random group of soon-to-die game show contestants with the fact that we, the audience, are watching their imminent demise alongside the anonymous masses in the film. We are made to be voyeurs, too, not entirely against our will, and yet we are asked to side with the contestants – or victims, let’s call them, for that is what they are. And since we are not heartless, we empathize with them.

We are supposed to sit on the fence, watching the games with ever-growing unease. We are asked to witness and at the same time identify with one Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who is good at surviving in the wild but keeps her thoughts very much to herself. She is not easy to like, but since she is played by Jennifer Lawrence, we know it’s safe to hang on to her because she will win in the end. Plus, I am a sucker for prickly pears and recalcitrant introverts on screen and in real life. The movie knows about that strange dilemma of empathy and detachment, and it uses it against us to make us see the point.

The sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) (according to my daughter, it is positively inadmissible to call it Hunger Games 2) does not understand this, and is happy to sail on the surface that got set up by part one – us, the audience, and them, the contestants. It tries to be bigger and louder than the original by using a special twist, but is really only the filmed game show without much of the reflection that went into the first part. It never takes a step back and watches itself from a distance. More people die, but every single death means less this time around. The Hunger Games was directed by Gary Ross, all the other three parts were directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation), and the series might be a very different one if Ross had been allowed to keep going.

“”Remember us in Magnolia?” – “Yeah. That was a good movie.” – “Yeah. Sigh.”

The two Mockingjay sequels (2014 and 2015) are loud, war-torn, bomb-laden teen-angst exercises, during which Katniss develops catastrophic ethics that find it okay, even dutiful, to kill a future demagogue before committing any of the intended crimes. What worked for Minority Report does not work here at all. But for all of the first movie’s running time, I was intrigued. If you don’t believe me, then watch the Divergent movies, then watch The Hunger Games, and we’ll talk.

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