Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Hunger Games

I'm a fan of a website called Sofabet. It's a site dedicated to unravelling the intricacies of reality TV shows, trying to second-guess what the producers of the show are thinking in order to garner votes, so Sofabet can make suggestions on who best to place money on. I particularly enjoy their deconstruction of the X Factor; how whoever opens the first live show is always in the bottom two the next night; second and third aren't much good either, as most of the TV audience are still watching Strictly Come Dancing on BBC. This year they carefully go over the entire thing to show how the producers originally favoured Janet and The Risk (certainly wanted a group to finally win, and certainly not another boy), but had to change their minds drastically as Janet turned out to not be the little sweet shy girl, and the numerous changes to The Risk began to look just a bit silly. A far-fetched, but brilliant, conspiracy theory suggests that Little Mix was in fact plan A all along, ever since a girl no bigger than a size eight was put in a group with size zeroes, in the hope that this would generate some online bullying leading to tears and a sympathetic VT just prior to their best performance of the season (ET)!

I'm also rather addicted to The Apprentice. There is something so delicious about watching people with huge egos suffer humiliations as they gradually realise that they're not as smart as they thought they were. When someone you love to hate finally has Lord Sugar's finger pointed at them, the sense of satisfaction is palpable. Of course, perhaps you wouldn't hate them quite so much if the producers of the show didn't give them quite so much screentime. Or pick moments of utter buffoonery, while cutting the circumstances which might make such comments or actions not quite so absurd.

Reality TV is utterly addictive. And the producers of such shows are very, very far from stupid. In fact they are geniuses. They can make the watchers think and feel exactly what they want them to think and feel. They are being manipulated, and they don't even realise it. Of course the X Factor is fixed. But not the votes themselves; they're dead accurate. It's fixed in a way which makes people vote a certain way, unknowingly being played with. And that is brilliant.

The decision made by the filmmakers of The Hunger Games to show the Game-Makers in action (yes, the point finally emerges - sorry) was very clever, but I don't think it went as far as it could have done. Yes, the fire which chases Katniss is used as a way to detour her away from the edge of the arena. The touchscreens allowing them to put in extra trees and monsters where and when they were needed was great, and uncomfortably reminiscent of the touch screens used by the X Factor judges when discussing contestants - casually moving their pictures around. But it could have gone further than that. I would have liked to see the Game-Makers actually reviewing footage, deciding which is best to show to the TV audience, clever editing, manipulation. Similarly, I would have liked to see the residence of the Capitol watching. The line from the book, "I was still in bed!" ranks somewhere in the top ten most despicable comments in children's literature, and it would have been good to see that; a family of spoilt Capitol citizens watching children killing each other over their TV dinners, discussing with their friends the 'best' bits, placing bets on the winner. It would have been a good contrast with the citizens of the districts, compulsorily and grimly watching as their children are killed in front of them. But more than that, it would hammer home how much the Capitol loves this show. It is, to them, reality TV, and is viewed in much the same way as our society views X Factor or The Apprentice. And that is what is so scary about The Hunger Games: it isn't that far away from our own society.

In a way, it's a shame that the filmmakers were limited by a 12A rating, because it means the violence is glossed over. In a way this is effective; we see glimpses of fists pounding and swords swinging, giving the impression that we're seeing everything, but no actual blood. What we do see is dead children lying on the ground after the initial bloodbath, and the pictures in the sky are genuinely moving. The boy with ginger hair particularly sticks out in my mind, quite an accomplishment for a character with no lines. But had they not been limited by the rating, we could have had blood flying and limbs being slashed off...only for it to be edited out by the Game-Makers to make it palatable for the Capitol audience. To keep them safely removed from the horrors they endorse every year.

I'm unsure of how I feel about the decision to show District Eleven revolting. In a way it made sense, and was beautifully done; the three-fingered salute to Katniss followed by a man I presume to be Rue's father leading a soon-squashed rebellion. But on the other hand I absolutely love the moment in the book when they send Katniss the bread; a quiet moment of grief-stricken support to another district. I'm also a little unsure of the likelihood of a district rebelling when they still have another tribute, Thresh, in the arena; surely they would have been scared that the Capitol would take revenge on him as a result of their actions. Actually, this exact scenario should have been included in the film, but I guess the filmmakers didn't think of it either! It would have been a better death scene than simply seeing his picture in the sky. Yes, I know that's all we get in the book, but film wise it lacked satisfaction. This is probably because they cut down his conversation with Katniss about Rue to a single line, so the image in the sky didn't have quite the same emotional impact.
While we're on the subject of Rue and Thresh, there was a brilliant second in the training sequence where she's climbed up to the ceiling, and he seeing this has a lovely expression - half exasperated, half smiling. Moments like that where there's no dialogue but the audience know exactly what's going on in the character's minds are very cleverly done.

I do think some of the nastier aspects of the book aren't quite as hard-hitting, probably because Collins describes them in a very flat, matter of fact way which actually makes it even sadder. For example, I never got the impression that people in the districts are actually starving; things are grim, certainly, but never to the extent where children are dying and young women are prostituting themselves. Likewise, Katniss' mother's depression is merely hinted at. I suppose again it comes down to - oh yeah, 12A.

I wouldn't want you to read this review and think that it's a bad film simply because I'm complaining about deviations from the book or pointing out where it could have been better. It was still a fantastic film, and far better than the much-mentioned Battle Royale. Jennifer Lawrence quite simply is Katniss. I was a little worried about Josh Hutcherson, as his previous movie roles hadn't left me particularly inspired, and Peeta is my favourite character. But actually he was really good too. The girl playing Rue only really needed to show up and look cute, which she managed with aplomb. Cato was just the right amount of arrogance; his realisation at the end that he had been lied to his entire life, that winning was not going to be the easy ride he thought it was, was a nice touch, but did it have to come at the expense of him sobbing over Clove's body and begging her not to leave him?

I think the thing that works best about the book, and the film, is that it leaves you with two vital questions. The first one is the same as any dystopia; it asks what you would do if you found yourself in the arena. But the second question should be considered in light of the fact that we are perfectly happy to watch candidates on The Apprentice wreck their professional lives, even if that was not their intention at the time. We're happy to watch X Factor contestants humiliate themselves on live TV, usually unwittingly. Clever producing, remember? So the question about The Hunger Games is; and be entirely honest, now: would you watch it?