In mythology, Diana was a huntress who set upon the woods with bow and arrows, precision in her aim and a desire to protect youth and life. Essentially, The Hunger Games, based on the book by Suzanne Collins and the third highest-grossing movie debut ever, is a version of Diana’s story. It is not fast and flashy. It is slow and subtle. As a dramatization of the individual versus the state, it is a work of art.
The story focuses on reverence for life. Set in a dystopian future where the government forces a boy and girl from 12 districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her younger sister’s place for the annual Hunger Games. The kid sister is a hero-worshipper. Their weary mother is practically catatonic. They live under total government control. Katniss, like a hissing cat in an early scene, is the only one who grasps what it means to be in a dictatorship, except for her mate (Liam Hemsworth) who senses when she’s about to scratch someone’s eyes out.
In a slave society, anyone is bound to feel like that. The Hunger Games illustrates the insidious effect of totalitarianism on one’s spirit in sad faces, electrical fences and the use of brute force. When one character wonders what life would be like if he weren’t enslaved, I felt the war-weary, economically depressed, government-controlled audience responding, relating and rooting for the good. The picture projects a dark world not unlike our own. You feel the heavy weight of government control, from propaganda preaching sacrifice to an absence of music, lightness and joy. People live in fear of the state and it shows. Watching citizens in The Hunger Games is like looking at faces in line at the TSA. People are defeated, ruled by the state.
Not Katniss. She is depicted as a certain type of individual – one with an heroic spirit – not merely as a girl. She gets angry. She tends to defy, not submit. She holds on and does not let go of hate—and she hates. From the start, she knows it’s wrong that they’re slaves. She hasn’t figured out how to play, let alone win, the game. But she’s working on it. She’s the good. She is noticed by a baker’s son (Josh Hutcherson) whose name is also called for the death contest. He provides the film’s mystery, since we probably can guess certain outcomes given the hype about the movie. Watch his character for clues about the contaminating power of totalitarianism.
It is an infection, a theme which permeates The Hunger Games, from its bizarre bureaucrats to its three young lives who struggle to be true to themselves with the only power they have: free will. The government that controls the Hunger Games sacrifices youths while draining life out of them to pacify the population, which is desperate for a reason to hope. So, the film has an advanced understanding of what it means to control people’s lives—and it tests whether those for whom the series is an obsession are like the masses in the movie; passive, compliant spectators who sanction the state’s power. You notice this during the movie.
As 24 kids kill each other one by one, there are raised questions – didn’t these kids ever watch previous Games? – and consistency issues. And while The Hunger Games is derivative of stories such as “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, it dramatizes today’s cultural nihilism, including our worship of the asinine – stupid TV shows about freaks and sluts – while the government assumes power and sacrifices youths in wars about nothing as we watch stupid shows about nothing.
Katniss knows she is alone. In each action, whether kissing a boy or drawing her bow, she is aware that she must stand up and defy the state to live on her terms. Watching the huntress take aim at what fuels dictatorship – with a climax that captures the unconquerable human spirit – is both timely and poignant and, by being true to herself, she may be making herself less alone than she thinks. The Hunger Games is part of a history in dystopian-themed filmmaking about the individual against the government – 1984, V for Vendetta, We the Living – and its every thud of a death cannon hits you hard and makes you feel hollow below your chest—as any warning against government control should.