In one scene, Katniss speaks to her costume designer Cinna and says, “So you’re here to make me look pretty.”
“I’m here to help you make an impression,” he tells her.
There’s something about The Hunger Games that makes an impression that’s disturbingly familiar. We see wealthy, urbane elitists in power oppressing rural, honest workers. We see government manipulating the people through backstage deception and propaganda. We also see startlingly similar social norms and expectations that strangely mirror our own modern day “reality” and conceptions of image and worth. However, there are also clear examples of love overcoming physical and emotional obstacles, and of the strength of family and sacrifice.
The Hunger Games’ moral message encapsulates all of the above, but also the nature of the supposed ideal human spirit and the nature of the world we live in. The film tells us we need to be on the lookout for insidious, hidden forces that twist and warp our perception of reality. It’s a dark and violent world out there that we can’t control, but we can still be strong in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It doesn’t mean that we’re not scared, but rather that we’re courageous despite it and brave enough to fight corruption even when it’s on our doorstep.
Indeed, the world of The Hunger Games is one that is not impossible to imagine. The theme of human resistance in dystopian futures is a common one that’s been seen in everything from games like Half Life 2 and Beyond Good and Evil to films like Bladerunner and V for Vendetta to George Orwell’s seminal book 1984. The Hunger Games offers a look at this familiar theme with a fairly unique take. Other works have even included youth and rebellions rising up, Lord of the Flies and Spartacus come to mind, but The Hunger Games does it with a stylish and atmospheric flair that ultimately gives it more modern day relevance.
The color palette is a critical element in bringing the film to life. Colors are dull and gritty in the outlying villages and the atmosphere is suitably oppressive. It’s almost a shock then to see the life and greenery of the forests, and it’s also appropriate that Katniss comes alive in her scenes shot in the forests. Contrast then the grim colors of the village and the life and greenery of the forests to the sharp contrasts and painfully bright palette seen in the city. The costumes in the city are especially garish, and are intentionally so. The colors of the city and its denizens are meant to clash sharply with what we’ve seen earlier, and to emphasize the stark differences between them and the heroes we root for. This is very well seen in the scene where Effie Trinket reads out the names at the reaping early on in the film.
The soundtrack also contributes greatly to the film. As an accomplished composer, James Newton Howard has composed for a wide range of films ranging from action to drama to comedy. His past work in composing music includes M. Night Shyamalan’s films The Village and The Sixth Sense. He’s also composed for the apocalyptic future shown in I Am Legend. James Newton Howard infuses the score with poignancy by including a folksy element and heavy use of strings in the music. This suits the characters and the rural atmosphere well. However, he switches to brash, triumphant themes in the city, and this strong juxtaposition fits the change of scene. We know that the protagonists are in the city for the sole purpose of eventually killing each other. How fitting then that the triumphant orchestral theme, especially during the chariot display, seems painfully shallow and hollow. It is not a noble endeavor they are about to embark on, Katniss and Peeta have been forced from their homes and forced to compete for their survival.
And this is where The Hunger Games differs from the standard action movie. We as an audience seem to have no problem seeing brutal murders being depicted on the silver screen as long as there’s a funny one liner, or if there are clearly drawn lines separating evil from good, or if the hero is some tortured soul who has no choice. Katniss isn’t James Bond or Batman. She’s simply a kid, albeit a kid with prodigious archery skill.
It should be tough then to see teenagers killing each other. The violence isn’t accompanied by slow motion or stylish, high contrast lighting or comic book style animation. It’s done simply and with a few flourishes. Of course the PG-13 rating means that little can be shown, and although it could have been directed to include more graphic scenes to perhaps shock the audience into attention, it would have been too radical a departure from the book series, where the violence isn’t elaborated on extensively.
One of the most important elements that Gary Ross implements in the film that differs from the book, is the emphasis on the theme of manipulation, specifically behind the scenes manipulation. We see how the games are set up in the control room and in the dialogue between President Snow and Seneca Crane. This focus on the set up of the games and its insidious manipulation of the contestants feeds into the overall theme of control in a dystopian future.
But why should we care? It’s easy to treat The Hunger Games purely as a simple good versus evil story, and indeed at its core it is a struggle between the good guys and bad guys with some very clichéd Hollywood elements. The line between “good” and “bad” is very clearly and simply drawn. However, we shouldn’t automatically dismiss it. It’s still a technically proficient film and executes its theme with aplomb. It’s a well-made film that is set in a dystopian future, but it has quite a bit to say about the world that we live in too. So whether you’re watching The Hunger Games as an avid follower of the books or because you wanted to see what all the hype was about, enjoy, but don’t forget to reflect on the deeper meanings hidden just below the surface.
Some questions for conversation:
- Michael Phua