Monday 30 April 2012

The Hunger Games

And when he saw her raised for the slaughter / Abraham’s daughter raised her bow / how darest you child defy your father / You better let young Isaac go
Arcade Fire | Abraham's Daughter

And the martyr line, It's a bitter pill. And the line of right, It will barely make you feel, Make you feel, barely make you feel. Make you feel.  
The Decemberists | One Engine
It feels sort of weird that The Hunger Games happened to come out around the same time Whedon and Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods did. Both films are fundamentally about creating a spectacle for an audience - in Cabin, in order to appease the old gods, in the Games, to create a fictional experience for the potentially dangerous and revolutionary periphery of an empire, to scare them and awe them at the same time. I think the premise of Suzanne Collins' novels is the weakest link, actually - the idea of keeping the masses quiet by bringing a human sacrifice that isn't just about fear but essentially, about hope - but the execution is fucking marvellous. 
One of the things that I said to almost everybody asking me about my opinion was that I had high hopes for the movie, since the one thing I disliked about the books was the first person present tense. Not being bound to that perspective allows the director to provide an insight into the creation of the spectacle. We don't have to rely on Katniss' point of view - but we get an insight into the decisions made behind the scenes, adding suspense, the wooing of the sponsors, the subtle mechanisations of power to create a story about Katniss. Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss goes into the hunger games with all the hatred and rage of someone sufficiently conscious of how utterly gross the entire idea of a regime requiring human sacrifice, and yet, she soon realizes that her survival - and in the end, what could be worse than dying (another important question the movie asks - is losing your sense of self, your humanity, worse than death?) - depends on being liked by the audience. In order to win, she may have to pretend to be someone she is not, to feel things she does not feel. Being in love with Peeta might be the necessary edge that earns her the food and the medicine, the support that makes the difference between being a victim and the victor. But - where's the difference between pretending to feel something and truly feeling it? If the face you are required to carry for an implied audience has to become as natural to Katniss as her real identity, her actual feelings, than how can she distinguish the two? The conflict, or the idea that the two identities are in conflict, is the horrid unanswered question the movie asks of the audience. In the end, nobody, not even Katniss herself, can distinguish between the performance and the authentic identity.  
The most important moment of the movie comes towards the end. Katniss has to pretend that her defiance was motivated by her love for Peeta, not by a genuine desire to oppose the oppressive regime that put her in the arena, expected her to kill in order to survive. She has to perform the very role a significant part of the actual audience wants to see her in - someone conflicted between choosing between Peeta and Gale, the two male characters presented as possible love interests - when the actual conflict, the true question, is how to turn the tiny moments of resilience into something viable enough to stop the wheels from turning. The Hunger Games isn't about the love triangle, it's about Katniss as the spark to set the districts afire and start a rebellion against the Capitol. Like The Cabin in the Woods, The Hunger Games is about the subtext, the relationship between the audience sitting in the cinema and the narrative presented on screen. In order to root for her, we must see Katniss only being willing to kill out of necessity. But the final question is - is Katniss allowed to forget, or must she remember forever, as Peeta insists, in order to turn her traumatic experience into something that will change the world she lives in? 

2012, directed by Gary Ross, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Woody Harrelson, Toby Jones, Amanda Stenberg, Isabelle Fuhrman, Alexander Ludwig, Donald Sutherland, Leven Rambin, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Paula Malcomson, Liam Hemsworth, Willow Shields. 

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