The Hunger Games is quite a sophisticated film that explores a number of themes and issues, including ideas of poverty, wealth, power, violence and reality television.
How power can be abused by corrupt, totalitarian governments is one of the ideas explored in The Hunger Games. The people of Panem are ruled by a brutal and repressive regime that will do anything to stay in power. When Gale talks about running away, Katniss is quick to remind him that the government would probably cut out their tongues if they tried. The Hunger Games is another way that the government holds onto power.
“This was the uprising that rocked our land,” says President Snow in a propaganda video that is played at The Reaping. “Thirteen districts rebelled against the country that fed them, loved them, protected them. Brother turned on brother until nothing remained. And then came the peace, hard-fought and sorely won, a people rose up from the ashes and a new era was born but freedom has a cost. The traitors were defeated. We swore as a nation, we would never know this treason again and so it was decreed that each year, the various districts of Panem would offer up in tribute one young man and woman to fight to the death in a pageant of honour, courage and sacrifice. The lone victor bathed in riches would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our forgiveness. This is how we remember our past, this is how we safeguard our future.”
Like many totalitarian governments, the government of Panem stays in power using military force. Capitol Peacekeepers patrol the districts and use violence to subdue the people when necessary. When Katniss and Primrose file into the arena for The Reaping, there are a number of peacekeepers dressed in matching grey uniforms and armed with weapons overseeing the event. When fighting breaks out in District 11, the Capitol Peacekeepers are quick stop the violent uprising which threatens to interrupt their supply of grain.
The government also abuses its power by exploiting the districts, taking the crops and resources that they produce and giving little in return. As a result, The Capitol continues to be wealthy and prosperous while the districts endure great poverty and hardship.
The Hunger Games also explores ideas of wealth. In the film, the prosperous Capitol uses its power to exploit the surrounding districts. These districts see little reward for their hard work and continue to live in poverty despite producing most of the country’s food and resources.
The success of The Hunger Games coincided with the emergence of the international Occupy Movement. Started in September 2011, the Occupy Movement was an international protest against inequality. Supporters of the movement argued that too much wealth rests in the hands of large corporations and rich individuals. The protestors staged nonviolent occupations of major cities across the globe to raise awareness of economic inequality. One of the most notable protests occurred in Wall Street, America’s most significant financial district. Although Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games several years before the rise of the Occupy Movement, there are many who argue that the novel was successful because it taps into these sentiments of inequality.
The production of the film coincided with the start of protests around the world. In the film, director Gary Ross creates a strong contrast between the prosperity of The Capitol and the poverty of its surrounding districts. This contrast is established in the opening sequence when Ross cuts abruptly from The Hunger Games to District 12. The use of mise-en-scene – which incorporates the use of colour, makeup and costume – is crucial in creating this distinction. In the opening sequence, Caesar Flickerman and Seneca Crane are dressed in expensive suits and ties, their hair styled immaculately. The studio is bright and colourful. The establishing shot of District 12 is a stark contrast to the bright, artificial world of the television studio. There is a ramshackle wagon in the foreground, a dilapidated house and old power lines stretching into the distance. As Katniss leaves the house, Ross uses a number of shots to establish the overwhelming poverty of District 12. These images – which include a shot threadbare washing hanging from lines, old rusted toys and a procession of exhausted miners – would not look out of place in Depression-era America.
As she leaves District 12, Katniss is overwhelmed by her first glimpse of the opulent lifestyle that people take for granted in The Capitol. As she steps into the train carriage, director Gary Ross shows a close up of Katniss’ expression of astonishment as she sees the lavish carriage. The camera tilts down as her hand hesitantly touches a polished tabletop, then cuts to several shots panning across the tables of food.
The Hunger Games is condemnation of violence and cruelty. The film criticises ruthlessness and inhumanity while praising compassion and morality.
Nevertheless, some have criticised the film’s violence. “I can’t get past the fact that it is packed with gruesome and disturbing scenes,” Susie O’Brien wrote in The Herald Sun. “One child murders another by snapping his neck, and other children are killed by spears, blows to the head, arrows and rocks.”
A discussion of violence in The Hunger Games must consider the role violence plays in the narrative and how the filmmakers position the audience to respond to this violence. Although the film is about children who are forced to kill each other, it does not glorify or celebrate violence.
The opening sequence encourages the audience to detest the violence and cruelty of The Capitol. Midway through an interview between Caesar Flickerman and Seneca Crane, director Gary Ross cuts abruptly to the anguished cries of Primrose Everdeen who has woken from a nightmare about being selected for The Hunger Games. The scene in which Katniss tenderly comforts her sister encourages the audience to sympathise with the residents of District 12 while feeling a sense of anger towards the callous and uncaring Capitol. The government’s brutality is reinforced when Katniss says they wouldn’t hesitate to cut out their tongues for attempting to escape. The audience is again being encouraged to despise a regime that uses such violence to maintain control.
The first onscreen violence occurs when Katniss arrives in The Capitol. Hugging her knees, Katniss watches a large television screen which shows Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith discussing The Hunger Games over a split screen of tributes clashing violently. There is footage of a previous tribute with a bloody brick in his hand as the hosts discuss the moment “a tribute becomes a victor”. It’s important to recognise that this violence is only implied and the audience is encouraged to share Katniss’ fear and shock.
When the tributes enter the arena, the bloodbath at the Cornucopia is arguably the most violent scene in the film. The filmmakers have made an attempt to portray this violence as disturbing. The scene begins with a wall of disturbing electronic noise as the tributes ascend into the arena. Several handheld point of view shots strongly encourage the audience to identify with Katniss’ fear as the countdown begins. As the countdown ends, sound disappears almost completely, replaced with a disturbing whine. The camera whip pans erratically. There is a glimpse of a bloody machete, weapons being thrust, tributes falling over and someone’s head being pounded into a pile of equipment. This scene is unquestionably disturbing but the violence is minimal and portrayed in a manner that doesn’t glorify it.
Later, Katniss seeks refuge in a tree. She notices another tribute sitting by a small fire. There is a scream as she is murdered by an alliance of tributes, including Cato, Glimmer and Marvel. Director Gary Ross lingers on a close up of Katniss and the audience hears the sound of laughter as the alliance traipses through the woods. “Did you see the look on her face?” one of them laughs. Marvel drops to her knees. “Oh, please don’t kill me,” she says in a mocking tone. Ross cuts back to a close up of Katniss who looks on with a combination of horror and disgust. This scene is a good example of how The Hunger Games criticises violence by positioning the audience to detest cruel and callous acts.
This revulsion towards violence is further developed when Haymitch watches two children engaged in a mock battle. The scene begins with an over-the-shoulder shot of Haymitch watching two children unwrapping presents. He cuts to a shot of Haymitch looking on in disgust, then to a shot of the boy chasing his sister around cheerfully with a sword. Haymitch exhales, clearly upset. This combination of acting and editing clearly positions the audience to detest the government’s violence and cruelty.
After escaping from an orchestrated forest fire, Katniss encounters the alliance of careers. Here acting again contributes to the film’s criticism of violence. The career tributes yell and cheer as they pursue her through the forest. As Cato starts to follow her up the tree, director Gary Ross cuts to a medium shot of the other tributes at the bottom of the tree urging him to kill her. He whip pans to a shot of Peeta as he watches on fearfully. After they resolve to wait for her to come down, Ross cuts to a shot of Haymitch sitting in a public square watching The Hunger Games on a large screen. His face is lined with concern and he shakes his head, a mournful violin rising in the background. While waiting in the tree, Katniss tries to treat her wound as well as she can, a close up emphasising her grimace as she presses down on the raw flesh. Again The Hunger Games condemns violence, emphasising its consequences. Katniss manages to escape the waiting tributes by dropping a next of deadly tracker jackers. As she flees, the hallucinating Katniss pauses for a moment before taking the bow from Marvel who was killed by the tracker jacker venom. Ross cuts to a shot of Marvel’s face, then to a close up of Katniss as she pauses in shock, realising that she was responsible for his death.
Rue’s death is the film’s strongest condemnation of violence. It’s important to consider how this scene is constructed to have a powerful emotional effect on the audience. As Rue collapses into Katniss’ arms, Ross cuts between several extreme close ups of the fatal wounds and Katniss’ distraught expression. “It’s okay,” she says, crying. “You’re okay. You’re okay.” Sorrowful music rises as Rue implores her to win the games. A point of view shot from the perspective of Rue pulls in and out of focus as Katniss sings to her, gradually fading to white. In this sequence, the audience is clearly encouraged to feel sympathy for Katniss and Rue as well as a deep sense of antipathy towards the brutality of the career tributes. Ross lingers on a close up of Rue’s motionless face as Katniss closes her eyes. He cuts to a close up of Katniss who cries uncontrollably. The sound fades out and the music rises as Katniss screams, throwing the spear away. A montage of shots shows Katniss picking flowers and laying them on Rue’s body. Throughout this sequence, a combination of acting, music, shot size, focus and editing in this sequence all combine to create sympathy for these characters and their plight.
Later in the film, when Katniss makes a run for some medicine, Clove attacks her. “Where’s lover boy?” she taunts. “I see. You were gonna help him, right? Well, that’s sweet. You know, it’s too bad that you couldn’t help your little friend. That little girl? What was her name again? Rue? Yeah, well, we killed her. And now we’re gonna kill you.” This acting and dialogue further reinforces the film’s condemnation of violence and brutality.
At the end of the film, when Katniss and Peeta face off against Cato, he urges them to kill him. “I’m dead anyway,” he says. “I always was, right? I didn’t know that till now. How is that? Is that what they want?” Highlighting the injustice of The Hunger Games, he says that killing is the only thing he knows how to do. By the end of the film, the audience realises that Cato is just another victim of The Capitol.
While criticising violence and cruelty, the film praises the compassion and morality of character like Katniss, Peeta and Rue.
After escaping the career tributes using a nest of tracker jackers, Katniss wakes to discover that Rue had treated her wounds. “It’s okay,” Katniss says finding her behind a tree, “I’m not going to hurt you.” Ross cuts to a shot of Rue and Katniss sharing some food. Rue’s compassion is a stark contrast to the ruthlessness and cruelty of the career tributes.
Later in the film, when Katniss discovers that Peeta has sustained a serious wound she says, “I’m not going to leave you, I’m not going to do that.” The film once again praises compassion and self-sacrifice over violence, self-interest and cruelty. “You fed me once,” she says, offering him a spoonful of soup.
Novelist Suzanne Collins developed the idea for The Hunger Games after flipping stations between war coverage and reality television. Combining the idea with Greek mythology and Roman gladiatorial combat, she imagined a future world in which children fight to the death on reality television. The film’s criticism of reality television is evident from the opening scene in which Caesar Flickerman and Seneca Crane discuss The Hunger Games. The set of the program is reminiscent of reality television programs like Big Brother and The Biggest Loser. Later in the film, when Katniss arrives in The Capitol, the audience is given another glimpse of the brutal television program as the hosts celebrate the moment “a tribute becomes a victor”. In many ways, The Hunger Games is a criticism of reality television which pits contestants against each other in humiliating and often degrading competitions for the benefit of viewers. “You really want to know how to stay alive?” Haymitch asks at breakfast the next morning. “You get people to like you. Oh. Not what you were expecting. When you’re in the middle of the games and you’re starving or freezing, some water, a knife or even some matches can even make the difference between life and death. And those things only come from sponsors. And to get sponsors, you have to make people like you.” The parallels between The Hunger Games and reality television, in which people often vote for contestants, are obvious.
The similarities between The Hunger Games and modern reality television is also evident when the tributes are interviewed before a studio audience. The program opens with Caesar Flickerman standing in front of enormous screens on a set reminiscent of Big Brother. The camera cranes across the audience revealing a crowd of well-dressed, smiling citizens. A montage of clips shows the tributes taking the stage and being interviewed by Flickerman in the style of reality television interviews. “I’m prepared. I’m vicious. I’m ready to go,” says Cato in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place on the set of Survivor.