When a screen version is released of a pop-culture phenomenon as instantly iconic as the Hunger Games series, a movie critic has to wonder whether there’s any point at all in writing a review. The True Believers of this particular geekdom will have been champing at the bit for months, many of them flocking to midnight premieres and more of them adding their coin to the record-breaking opening-weekend coffers. They don’t need any persuading.
On the other extreme, you’ve got the millions of people who simply refused to read the books, typically because either A) they’re classified as Young Adult and therefore must not be real literature, B) they fall into the fantasy genre and therefore must not be real literature or C) they depict gruesome violence, largely directed against children, and therefore must be repellent. People unwilling to put those assumptions to the test by actually reading the books are likely to carry said prejudices with them when it comes time to determine their next movie choice, and no amount of persuasion on a critic’s part is likely to make much difference.
But there must be some potential viewers who fall into the middle ground, and it is for their sake that I reiterate here the gist of what I said about the first installment of The Hunger Games in 2012: These stories are not mere shallow, action-packed dystopian science fiction gorefests. The books are well-written page-turners in the best thriller tradition, and the movies, while somewhat hobbled by lacking the intimate first-person point-of-view of the novels, do quite a respectable job of conveying the series’ grand themes.
Don’t be fooled by the online chatter of the tween end of the Hunger Games fanbase into thinking that a young woman’s ambivalence over two competing would-be boyfriends is one of those themes. This is no Twilight. Yes, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) does have that choice to make, among many; but it’s really the least of her worries, and it’s shaped, like the rest of her character, by hard experience, not by which guy is hunkier. What this saga is really about is the dehumanization of people that inevitably develops in a society where the gap between rich and poor has expanded to the point where they seem almost to be evolving into separate species, à la H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine.
It’s also about what can happen to people’s capacity for ethical behavior when they hand their minds over to centrally controlled, sensationalist mass media: The titular Games, in which teenaged Tributes annually fight to the death in a high-tech arena to remind the have-nots of the unbearable cost of dissent, owe as much to American Idol as they do to Roman gladiator contests or the myth of the Minotaur.
And to a great extent, The Hunger Games – authored by military brat Suzanne Collins – is about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We only saw hints of that in the first movie, where Katniss has had to grow up way too fast after the death of her father in a mine explosion and her mother’s withdrawal into crippling depression. Some of what comes across as strength and determination in her personality is simply hardening. She’s not very communicative verbally, so what little she does say carries a lot of weight – like when she tells her hunting buddy and would-be suitor Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that she intends never to have children. Only with her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is she able to show a tender side.