Catching The Hunger Games virus
March 31, 2012 § 2 Comments
Put the success of The Hunger Games down to the girl with the bow and arrows. She is the heartbeat of the 26 million copy selling trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins that has also been adapted into a Hollywood juggernaut.
The film roared into the cinemas in its first weekend. It made $NZ260 million in cinemas around the world. In North America, the film had the most successful first weekend for a non-sequel film and had the third biggest opening weekend of all time (surpassed only by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Dark Knight).
The Hunger Games has also become the most successful film at midnight screenings, the opening day trend that is becoming so important to defining an event film. It too kicked off in New Zealand with midnight screenings, making $NZ1.6 million in its first weekend. Bridget Jones captured the ‘red eye’ scene in this Auckland Now post.
Meanwhile, the deafening buzz on social media has been building for months. The film’s launch has been underpinned by a well executed social media campaign on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. You can read more about it here, here and here.
If there was ever any doubt, we now know The Hunger Games is going to break all kinds of box office records in the months ahead. If you must single out any one individual, blame Katniss Everdeen. She is a 16 year old girl with way fewer First World problems than your average American teenager, yet she has become a cultural touchstone for millions of young adults. Her predicament is an elemental one – how to stay alive in a lethal environment where the only choices are to die or kill other children as unlucky as yourself.
We pick up her story just before she volunteers in place of her younger sister Prim to join the ritual killing fields. It is the first demonstration of her circles of responsibility – to her sister, to her family, to her community and to her district. Lastly, she accepts the biggest burden of all – an obligation to all the districts enslaved by a totalitarian regime that rules this future dystopia from its morally bankrupt capital, Panem.
The name Panem even comes from the Latin phrase for bread and circuses – Panem et Circensus. It is a hat tip to when emperors used these two levers to massage public sentiment. The Hunger Games are an echo from a time when gladiators died while entertaining crowds at the Coliseum and across the Roman Empire.
The grimmer tragedy of these games is that it is children who are selected at random to kill or be killed. Think of a kind of lethal Big Brother where bitchiness and nastiness are emphasised with spears, knives and arrows, and where the backstabbing is not metaphorical.
The whole time, the gory spectacle – the slaughtering and teen angst – is televised live. The show is an unholy intermingling of entertainment and power politics. It is how the rulers of Panem say to the people that they have exclusive power over the life and death of their subjects.
By chapter two, our investment in Katniss is complete. We realise, like her, that her only way home is over the bodies of the other kids. We see her guided by her moral compass as she negotiates a way through the killing ground with skill, heart and intelligence. We applaud her choices and agonise over her dilemmas. Her angst makes her an emotional lightning rod for the story’s target audience. She is acutely conscious of the contradictions of her humanitarianism and the violence she has to inflict in the context of the system’s cruelty and ritualised barbarism.
When Katniss forms an alliance with Rue, the youngest participant, she learns that her new friend likes music more than anything else in the world.
There’s also this episode which could be interpreted as humour of the blackest kind.
There was a guy like that a few years ago from District 6 called Titus. He went completely savage and the Gamemakers had to have him stunned with electric guns to collect the bodies of the players he’d killed before he ate them. There are no rules in the arena, but cannibalism doesn’t play well with the Capitol audience, so they tried to head it off. There was some speculation that the avalanche that finally took Titus out was specifically engineered to ensure the victor was not a lunatic.
The three fingered salute that’s being adopted by The Hunger Games’ most passionate fans has become another signature of the book and film, in the same way the Vulcan live long and prosper sign was embraced by Trekkies everywhere.
Then something unexpected happens. At least, I don’t expect it because I don’t think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim’s place, and now it seems I have become someone precious. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.
When her success becomes a threat to Panem, she makes an implacable enemy. She has become the activist/dissident who strikes fear into all police states. Author Suzanne Collins says the inspiration for The Hunger Games came from switching channels between Survivor and the war in Iraq. But one could imagine the inspiration also being the regime in North Korea where people live in constant threat of famine, of Syria where agents of government torture and kill children with impunity, and China, Bahrain, Iran and others where human rights activists are routinely harassed and imprisoned.
The real conflict at the core of The Hunger Games is not the games themselves, but the struggle to bring down a system and to free a people from a ruthless dictatorial government. Katniss literally becomes the game changer and, I am guessing, the spark that ignites a revolution.
It’s a raging, bone shattering narrative, a squeaky bottom read, an extraordinary heroine and a monster at the box office. Collins herself worked on the screenplay with the filmmakers. Jennifer Lawrence is an excellent casting choice for Katniss. She plays haunted and hunted so exquisitely, just as she did in Winter’s Bone. The rest of the young cast – as well as veterans like Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson – serve up post apocalypse survivor chic eye candy for the PG13 audience.
It’s a case of so far, so good. The Hunger Games hits the bull’s eye on the first shot and there’s much more to come. But don’t wait for the movie sequels. Read the books – especially the brilliant first one. It’s titled The Hunger Games and it is how the world came to know Katniss Everdeen.