For girls hankering for positive role models, The Hunger Games is welcome respite from the video clips on TV, but for all the kick-butt power of Katniss Everdeen, it's her friend Peeta Mellark who stands out from the hungry crowd when it comes to a sense of goodness and morality.
If you are prepared to look past the violence, of the scenes of children killing children in the manner of The Lord of the Flies (or, in disturbing real life, Joseph Kony's child tribes), then the film blitzing box offices around the world based on the best-selling trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins offers us a chance to ponder our own over-arching sense of right and wrong, and whether we would actually practise what we preach in the event that we had to make some really tough decisions.
The film manages to cross the sex divide, and also age demographics, artfully, in narrative and marketing, presenting us with three young, robust and individual teenagers (Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen; Australia's Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne, who I imagine will come into play in the sequel; and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta) who, in the fashion of most Dystopian-themed young-adult literature, out-gun the older folk.
For those unfamiliar with The Hunger Games' premise, it is a fusion of Totalitarian and Capitalist ideological thought with a futuristic Star Wars element. In a post-apocalyptic North America, in a place called Panem, representatives from the Capitol (where power is centralised) select a boy and girl (known as "tributes") from each of the twelve proletariat (read peasant-class) districts every year as a reminder of their subservience to the Capitol and punishment for "the uprising".
The children, some "career tributes" (i.e. bred to fight) and others unwilling participants, have to fight to the death in a game orchestrated and televised by the Capitol; one will be left standing at the game's end. The overarching theme: the Capitol can kill the spirit and enforce its rules but it can't stamp out individual thought nor the human will.
As with The Lord of the Flies and Harry Potter, the children are not altogether good: we see bad seeds (the career tributes) and good seeds, though it's not clear in the film as to whether this innate badness has been nurtured as a result of the Capitol's rule, and the circumstances in which they find themselves (corruption by starvation and oppression of human rights). The big screen doesn't always do nuance well, much less in action-packed epics.
In the "good" corner, we find Katniss, Peeta, Rue (the youngest contestant) and Thresh, who hail from districts 11 and 12, which specialise in agriculture and mining (each district has its specific work allotment). They form an alliance against the other 20, some who compete independently, and others in the Alpha-kid pack.
The adults are, by and large, presented as weaker than the kids – Katniss' mother is presented as someone incapable of protecting her youngest child, Primrose, in the absence of her strong teen girl, while the other adults are observers in the crowd, spectators in the Roman Ampitheatre that is The Hunger Games, clearly too absorbed in the entertainment to question the state rules. They are adorned in opulent garb and concerned with visceral pleasures, of food and the spectacle.
This is with the exception of Katniss' stylist, Cinna (played by Lenny Kravtiz), who primps and preens his young charge before she appears before the reality TV show cameras. Cinna becomes a trusted friend of Katniss and makes every effort to aid her in the Games, equipping her with sound advice and a dress that emits flames. Back in the District, there is also the sense that the adults have had enough – a revolt is staged in one scene in reaction to the exploitation of their children.
Katniss enters the Games after taking the place of her precious, wide-eyed young sister (Primrose played by Willow Shields) whose name is picked in the annual lottery. This sacrificial act is applauded by the Games coordinators, building Katniss up as the heroine from lowly District 12.
Her prowess as a hunter and archer is displayed in the opening scenes in the woods where she attempts to kill a dear to sell to the Capitol's "Peacekeepers" in exchange for goods, and later when auditioning for "sponsors", who are able to bestow gifts (balm for sores and broken limbs) amidst the Games. She is a reluctant wearer of dresses preferring boots and leather. Her natural beauty shines in makeup-free scenes. She is womanly and athletic.
Her strong sense of family is admirable; she will do anything to protect her sister. This loyalty is also displayed mid-Games when she comes to the aid of Peeta, and later Rue. She is agile, capable, determined... not bookish like Hermoine Granger, but an action-hero like Lara Croft. But while Katniss' decision making is based on protecting her family, Peeta is more concerned than Katniss with preserving the integrity of his soul.
An informal alliance with Rue and Thresh make Katniss' time in the Games more bearable (Thresh rewards her loyalty to Rue in kind), but it's her relationship with Peeta that takes centre stage; a highly marketable young love to be exploited by the Capitol on its TV show. Peeta is the boy-hero from her home district who gives bread to the poor, and is willing to sacrifice his life for his love's.
He is tactical, masquerading as a savant for the TV cameras in order to gain support with a faux confidence, figuring that the odds are stacked against him, he might as well go down respectably. He goes covert during the Games, siding with the enemy and thereby risking his own life, in order to preserve Katniss, and develops a strategy for camouflaging himself: his game is not one of violence but of smarts.
While Katniss comes to his aid, taking on his physical disability, he gives her comfort. His strengths are also his weakness, ultimately disadvantaging him in the ring, but we admire him nonetheless because he has conviction. In one key scene with Katniss, the night before they are due to begin the Games, he confides, "I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only, I want to die as myself. I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not."
Given the current geo-political climate, the film may just give Aussie kids and adults alike something bigger to ponder: would they be prepared (psychologically, physically, morally) to go into battle if war were to break out tomorrow and, indeed, die for the cause? I am afraid that mightn't be the case, but this movie at least demonstrates that love – not war – can conquer all.
Girl With a Satchel