My Mother, much to my eternal chagrin, is a fan of the television show Survivor. And while I prefer to stay far away from it and voice my discontent with her choice to watch it, she did long ago provide one Survivor-related detail that I found immensely interesting. She argued the show should win Best Editing at the Emmys year-in, year-out because it consistently took these many disparate characters and storylines, found something to latch on to for the audience and then slowly and skillfully manipulated that same audience into thinking this way and rooting for these people and against these people. And that was the word that kept returning to me throughout the two-and-a-half hours of The Hunger Games – manipulation.
You might have heard of this Hunger Games. Based on an uber-popular young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, it was brought to the big screen by director Gary Ross (who co-wrote the screenplay with Collins and Billy Ray). It centers around a futuristic dystopian society in which people dress like an awesome amalgamation of 17th Century France, an 1850’s riverboat and Oceania in a North America massively altered by some sort of rebellion that has been broken up into 12 distinct districts ruled with an iron fist and heavy whiskers by the President (Donald Sutherland, suitably creepy). But none of this is really the point. This is merely the platform by which Ms. Collins has created The Hunger Games (!!!) wherein one man and one woman is selected at random from each district and thrown together in a televised outdoor kill or be-killed free-for-all adventure! It is a Dystopian Olympic Games! And it is, it seems, what keeps this nation in order.
In a sly bit of scriptwriting economy, we are essentially introduced to our leading lady, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), in the midst of a deer hunt in the woods – not unlike Daniel Day Lewis’s Hawkeye, whom sort of resembles in her graceful defiance – which clues us into the fact that 1.) She can fend for herself and 2.) She’s got skills with a bow and arrow. She has a boyfriend (Liam Hemsworth) and a little sister (Willow Shields) who is ultra paranoid she will be picked for the games. Alas, she is, and so Katniss steps up to the plate and volunteers in her sis’s place. And so Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are shepherded off to the Capital and prepared for the, uh, Battle Royale. In a deft bit of laconic alcoholism but biting insight, Woody Harrelson works as their mentor, Haymitch, offering advice on how to be last person standing.
Haymitch is key because he explains – especially to the no-nonsense Katniss – how crucial it is to come across likeable to garner “sponsors” (an idea that, unless I missed something, is never truly followed up on) and to get not only the public but the producers such as the Gamemaker (played by Wes Bentley with a ferocious goatee) on their side because if you can get the producers on your side they can, in turn, manipulate events in your favor. That is, far and away, the most interesting idea displayed on this sprawling canvas. Peeta right away senses the necessity of manufacturing (or is it?) a star cross’d love affair between he and Katniss which can endear them to fawning viewers who can aid their efforts. Ah, but the producers, locked away in an expansive editing room, can manipulate right back, whether with forest fires conjured on a whim or with sudden rule changes in the midst of the games. The President even pulls the Gamemaker aside and not-so-subtly urges him in one direction. These are the editors of Survivor working the angles and the players rolling with the punches.
Ah, but that manipulation cuts both ways. Consider that by being introduced to Katniss straight away and no one else we are immediately pre-disposed to rooting for her, and by being pre-disposed to rooting for her we don’t “want” anything that would ruin our “empathy” for her. (When I say “we” I, of course, am not talking about myself.) And so employing admittedly great craft, Ross never – not once! – puts Katniss in a position to square off to the death with someone that has not already been specifically established as unlikeable. Or consider the panther-y mutations unleashed by the Gamemaker at a delicate moment. This is, in theory, the Gamemaker manipulating his own game, but simultaneously it is the film working in a requisite chase scene and using that chase scene as a device to move its characters into position for the climax. This is both annoying and fascinating – Hunger Games, repeatedly, is a movie commenting on the way in which reality TV can manipulate even as the movie itself manipulates us. It’s tough but never TOO tough to prevent itself from offending its intendedly broad audience.
This cinematic seduction, however, is offset by the intent work of Ms. Lawrence. Outwardly it’s straight-forward – a young woman fighting to stay alive. Inwardly it’s uneasy and complex – a young woman who initially seems insulted by all the fakery of bloodshed posing as a pageant, learning as it goes along to embrace the fakery to assist in her hope of emerging victorious. Most impressively she doesn’t even overtly tip her hand in specific scenes as to which way she’s playing. Is she just an innocent caught up in the moment or is she the most clever manipulator of all? And if she is manipulating, can you blame her? Is it natural selection when it’s violent make believe?
The Hunger Games is, like its namesake, a souped-up game show. But Jennifer Lawrence isn’t just a contestant. She’s playing for real.