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The Hunger Games

“The Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins has already become a phenomenon in the publishing world, having reached millions of young adult readers. Now the first movie has been released, and it, too, has become a big hit. Sequels are sure to come.

I’d heard of “The Hunger Games,” but have not read the books, and knew little about them. But the movie’s success and positive buzz made me want to see it. I’m not sure I understood it completely, but I liked the movie. I was intrigued by its premise, its strong visual style of a not-too-distant totalitarian state, and its talented star, Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence received an Oscar nomination two years ago for her strong performance in the critically acclaimed “Winter’s Bone” (read review). In “The Hunger Games,” she gives another strong performance as another teenager, Katniss Everdeen, thrust into a national spotlight. Despite all the odds against her, Lawrence’s fierce determination made me actually believe she could win the competition.

Here’s the basic plot, as I understand it: The totalitarian nation of Panem is divided into 12 districts and the Capitol. Decades before our story begins, several districts rebelled against Panem. The rebellion was harshly suppressed. As a punishment for the rebellion, each district is forced to send two teenage representatives, one male and one female, to an annual competition in the Capitol called the Hunger Games. The young people are given two weeks’ training, then forced into the competition with other better trained and conditioned athletes. It’s like a futuristic gladiator competition. The young people are turned into instant celebrities, wined and dined, given elaborate costumes, and interviewed extensively on television. When the time for the games comes, the nation is forced to watch. It reminded me of all kinds of reality TV shows, like “Survivor,” in which unknowns become instant celebrities while engaged in all kinds of competitions, watched by millions on TV. The big exception is that on reality TV, contestants are not forced to compete, and no one is forced to watch. At least not yet, anyway!

Katniss’ home district is District 12. It looks like Appalachia, with its beautiful green mountains. Yet its people live in poverty. Most work in the mines. Katniss’ own father was killed in a mining accident. Her mother seems as if she has never recovered emotionally from the loss of her husband. Katniss has learned to be an excellent hunter with bow and arrow, and provides for her mother and younger sister, Prim. (If you’ve seen “Winter’s Bone,” you’ll recognize the parallels.) Prim is chosen by lottery to be District 12’s representative in this year’s games. Katniss knows instantly that there is no way Prim would survive the competition. Heroically, Katniss offers to take her place. The male representative chosen from District 12 is Peeta Mellark. During a TV interview, Peeta claims that he has always loved Katniss. The media love this angle, and proclaim them the romantic couple of the games. The trouble is that there can be only one winner, the sole survivor of the game. To further complicate matters, Katniss has a boyfriend waiting for her back home.

I can’t tell you how faithful the movie is to the novel. But I did enjoy the film on its own terms. Director Gary Ross collaborated with Collins on the screenplay, so I assume there is continuity with the novel. Ross has a strong visual style, evidenced by his best known films, “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit.” I was captivated by his vision of the future with its outrageous costumes. The first half of the film leads up to the actual competition, while the second half is the competition itself.

From its premise, “The Hunger Games” sounds very violent. However, the onscreen violence is surprisingly brief, in order to avoid an R rating, no doubt. Katniss relies on her ability with bow and arrow, and the survival instincts she developed back in her home district to advance in the competition. She and Peeta are advised and trained by former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson.) Katniss also develops a close relationship to Rue, a very young competitor from another district.

I saw “The Hunger Games” during Holy Week, and couldn’t help but make a parallel between the totalitarian state which chooses to send, and more than likely kill, representatives from each district for the good of the state and the entertainment of the masses, in punishment for the revolt of long ago. I was also struck by Katniss’ willingness to take the place of her sister with little chance of survival. Katniss is willing to risk her life for the sake of the innocent. So maybe she is a kind of Christ figure.

The end of “The Hunger Games” leaves the door open for a sequel. I’ve heard that one is already in the works. I’m game for more!

Tom Condon, OP