Hunger Plays TV Games

On the most superficial level, The Hunger Games is about a futuristic post-war society called Panem sacrificing its young people in a gladiatorial-style survival tournament. Each district in Panem sends a female and male Tribute, chosen by blood-type lottery, to fend for themselves in the wild as part of a lethal game overseen by surveillance cameras and assorted holographic traps and menaces. In all, a typical video-game premise.

But at its only interesting level, The Hunger Games represents the latest bread-and-circuses. Modern desperation is embedded in its simplistic tale of Tributes Katniss Everdene (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), teenagers from the impoverished District 12 (formerly Appalachia). Their lack of political sophistication–worse than naivete–matches that of the filmmakers. To look at The Hunger Games only in plot terms avoids its dread significance: The smarter society thinks it becomes, the more gullible and dupable it is to commercial and political forces that control it.

Oddest thing about The Hunger Games, given its cynical plot, is the absence of cautionary irony. Despite Lawrence’s Southern girl warmth (well used in The Beaver), bow-and-arrow huntress Katniss shows as few intellectual resources as the mainstream media’s depiction of Sarah Palin. Gary Ross’ admittedly peculiar directorial style reduces Katniss and Peeta to post-internet Neanderthals. Their extended battle royale is what movie shills routinely call “breath-baiting adventure.” We are indeed through the looking glass if movies are designed to have no meaning beyond their immediate storylines or marketing points.

Ross constructs Panem’s feudal-totalitarian culture to repeat the same facile pronouncements about spiritual starvation and emotional repression as his idiotic TV allegory Pleasantville. Scenes of deprivation, indoctrination and shrill celebration surrounding the games (such as Katniss and Peeta paraded in CGI flames) make a dull spectacle. The film doesn’t have a look (Panem’s decadent administrators wear goofball outfits, colored eye lashes and funny hair-dos), just outlandish art direction passing for an originally-conceived “world.”

Based on novels by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is another demi-phenomenon like the Harry Potter, Twilight and Toy Story franchises. These movies are second-phase commercial exchanges whose only purpose is to confirm the first-phase. Each is a paradigm of how perfectly badly the system works: substandard product relying on hype, not insight into the human soul. Ross takes Collins’ opportunistic steals from Shirley Jackson’s classic tale “The Lottery” and George Orwell’s 1984 and mashes-up TV formula–specifically the Survivor “reality” game show–which he only thinks he sees through. It’s the same process to which TV gossip shows, tabloid media like Entertainment Weekly (and increasingly all of journalism) are dedicated.

If The Hunger Games was any good at all, it would have discussable themes–ambition, patriotism, faith, desire, disillusionment. Ross’ superficiality leaves only a time-killing preoccupation with “action,” a dulling substitute for narrative. This derives from the mobius-strip quality of TV shows like 24 and Lost–superficial never-ending stories. Look how blandly Ross depicts the dinner table conflict between contestants and their mentors (Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson); Ross can’t even make beauty out of Katniss finding a blue butterfly in the woods. With no philosophy to think about, The Hunger Games’ aesthetic poverty is exposed.

Ross and Collins’ premise follows The Running Man, Slumdog Millionaire and Paul W.S. Anderson’s brilliant, visceral Death Race remake, pop culture precedents that should have given Ross and his pre-sold audience higher standards and a skeptical edge. But again the lack of pop sophistication takes precedent. Our cultural diets are undernourished. This recalls the tragedy of Tintin and War Horse failing at the U.S. box office, omitted from the cultural discourse: The Hunger Games will become a hit because audiences have no memory of Running Man and Death Race–or even the egregious Slumdog. And if they can’t reference Spielberg, Keaton, Luc Besson, Walter Hill, Paul W.S. Anderson, Eisenstein, Peckinpah, Renoir, Welles, Clair, Gance, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Dreyer, DePalma, Boorman (Deliverance)–all masters of action and montage–they won’t know how to respond to Ross’ overwrought and under-thought presentation of politics and violence.

The Hunger Games hits bottom when Katniss and Peeta kiss; the applauding audience becomes suckers for the exact same tricks played on Katniss and Peeta. Ross dulls their perception and lowers their responses. As with Stanley Tucci’s ludicrous exaggeration of an Oprah Winfrey-style TV host, bread-and-circuses ringmaster Ross offers a tent pole blockbuster that is essentially a television show. Its lack of satire invites the public’s dumb gullibility.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xChair