Teen film and fiction gets a bad press. A sort of reverse ageism means that audiences often assume that anything aimed at teenagers must necessarily be stupid. They’re often right, of course, but then that’s pretty much true of all things aimed at anyone (Sturgeon’s Law famously opines that ‘Ninety percent of everything is crap.’ I’ve always found that to be a reasonable estimate, whether applied to film or anything else.) So, it’s not unusual to see a lot of teen-interest film being dismissed without much of a fair viewing. Twilight suffered a little from this – the books are truly awful, but the first film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, did enormously well at the box office (it remains the biggest opening ever for a female director) but garnered some pretty horrible reviews. And yet, it wasn’t bad; it was darker, slower, than we might have expected and the performance from Kristen Stewart in particular was a million miles away from the usual toothily upbeat pap we often get from American film aimed at teens. The whole thing felt like a pretty good, slightly depressive teen romance to me (with some nonsense about vampires chucked in.) Not a great movie, but certainly not a terrible one. But, it’s aimed at teenagers – teenage girls, particularly, which often makes it even more likely that it’ll be dismissed as mindless garbage – and so it perhaps did not get even the limited praise it was due. (It did, however, make somewhere in the region of infinity billion dollars, so I assume that nobody involved in the making was too devastated.)
The Hunger Games, the franchise which is presumably supposed to fill the hole left by the end of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, seems to be enjoying a more positive reception than Twilight, and rightly so, because it’s a vastly superior film. Directed by Gary Ross, it’s a good piece of dystopian sci-fi which deals with themes of friendship, love and loyalty in a way that isn’t patronising and which doesn’t shy away from the nastier elements of its subject matter.
Set after North America has been wholly transformed by civil war, the plot centres on 16 year old Katniss Everdeen. She ends up being entered for the Hunger Games, a battle to the death televised for the entertainment of the population. Each district in the country has to send one boy and one girl to the Games, and the victor is promised fame and wealth. The Games are held as a punishment and reminder of an uprising by the now-extinct 13th district. Katniss’ fellow representative from her district (the dirt-poor coal mining district 12 – they are very much the underdogs) is Peeta, a baker’s son who, perhaps unsurprisingly, quickly falls in love with Katniss. It is quickly clear to everyone that, while Peeta has little chance of winning (particularly against the ‘Careers’, a particularly ruthless group of contestants who are highly trained and expected to win), Katniss’ skills as an archer mean she is in with a strong chance.
There’s a lot to like about the film. In terms of characterisation, we are very much focused on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. James Berardinelli notices ‘a role reversal… he’s a capable damsel in distress to Lawrence’s heroic knight errant.’ That is, it’s Katniss who does all the stereotypically male things; she fixes the problems, protects weak people and is the most competent and active member of the group. We can perhaps see the influence of Alien in this privileging of the female characters; it’s good to see that after Ripley and Buffy (and not Bella) it seems pretty normal to have a female take the lead in an action movie. And she does a very good job; Jennifer Lawrence got particular praise for her performance in the film.
But there is some depth to these characters, which is not always the case in films made for teens. Part of the nature of the Games is that competitors need to attract the support of sponsors who can help them in various ways; in order to attract such support, they need to make themselves likeable, and Peeta realises that one way to do this is to pretend that he and Katniss are a couple. Throughout the film, its unclear how sincerely they feel affection for each other; this is a love story too, but there is a little twist, a little darkness and ambiguity to it, which adds some depth and weight to the relationship.
Generically, the film is a hybrid – on one level it’s a teen drama with all the conventions in place. We view events from the point of view of a teenager with a troubled family background who is forced to move to a new place and an unfamiliar and difficult situation. (Both Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, probably the two best known teen dramas of recent years, work the same way.) We see Katniss struggle with issues of loyalty, family, love and responsibility. We see her grow up and learn to make difficult decisions more easily, to ‘play the game’, literally and metaphorically.
More interestingly, though, is the film’s status as a piece of dystopian sci-fi; a film which constructs a pessimistic view of the future. America as shown here is deeply divided, antagonistic and subject to the fascistic rule of a population by a privileged minority. Dystopian sci-fi is, arguably, not about fears for the future so much as it is a reflection of the present. Suzanne COllins, the author of the original books, said that she was inspired to write the stories by the experience of flicking between reality television shows and coverage of the war in Iraq. The confusion of reality and media fiction (perhaps related to Baudrillard’s ideas about simulacra), and the increasing wealth gap between the top and bottom levels of society, are all recognised as causes for some concern in contemporary society; it’s refreshing to see that the film does not shy away from the slightly more difficult aspects of its chosen genre, and that it doesn’t simply borrow the dystopian diegesis in order to communicate the very cliched platitudes about friendship and self-empowerment which so many films, particularly those for younger people, seem to be limited to.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film, indeed, is the representation of class struggle and tension. The games are very much for the entertainment of an effete and pampered urban upper class who live in the Capitol and who are complicit in representing the chance to die for their entertainment as some sort of privilege. The rulers, as Roger Ebert points out, are ‘… painted in broad satire and bright colours. Katniss and the other tributes are seen in earth-toned realism’; it is clear that we are supposed to be contemptuous of these ridiculous, spoiled people, who often appear to be more like children than adults (a representation strongly influenced by HG Wells’ The Time Machine, a vision of the future wherein humanity has evolved into the childlike, useless Eloi and the brutal but effective Morlocks; that is, the upper and the lower classes.)
Powerful binary opposition is created between the rulers and the hardy, independent people of the other, rural, districts (this opposition between urban and rural lifestyles goes back to Shakespeare and further); yet, despite their silly fashions and seemingly superficial, effete ways, we see how ruthlessly they hold on to and exploit the means of production throughout the land. Ruling them is the sinister, misanthropic President Coriolanus Snow, and when we listen to his utter contempt for the participants in the Games and, by extension, for everyone in the country, we see how such divided societies are founded upon real contempt and inhumanity, and how working-class people are manipulated into actively working against their own best interests (a facet of class inequality and hegemony identified by Antonio Gramsci.)
Katniss, perhaps, has the personal fortitude and magnetism to correct this; the most powerful moment in the film is when, having seen another of her peers die a bloody death, she makes a three-fingered salute, a mark of affection, strength and fellowship with those of her own class, at the camera, and in so doing starts a riot among those in her district who are watching her on television.
This puts her in direct opposition to President Snow; the same powerful low-angle shots, the same militaristic behaviours and iconography, the same ability to command crowds. We are being set up for a huge struggle for dominance between these two people and all that they represent – old, male hegemony versus youthful, female rebellion. THis is absolutely the stuff for dystopian sci-fi; a genre which shows us visions of our possible futures and raises the idea of resistance to those futures.
So, a film which does about all you can ask for – one on level, a thrilling action film, and on another, a powerful example of dystopian sci-fi, complete with political subtext. By any standard, this is a good film, and it shows that fiction intended for young people can be sophisticated, layered and satisfying on a number of levels.