The irony is not lost on me that The Hunger Games, a film about teenagers fighting to the death, may actually serve as an antidote to the glamorized violence so often found in media and aimed at youth. Raw and horrific as the film's brutality is, it portrays with bittersweet clarity the difference between the perception of violence as entertainment and its heartbreaking consequences in reality. Every life taken in an act of aggression carries tragic weight; one is reminded that each is someone's son, daughter, sister, or brother. This is not an action thriller per se. It is not “entertaining” in the fun and breezy sense of that word. It is a profound investigation of society's callousness, government attempts at control, public manipulation by the mass media, and the overwhelming influence of compassion, selflessness, and courage in the face of awful cruelty.
Though much could be said about the film's artistry, this is a movie more powered by characters, themes, and narrative. Things like cinematography, editing, music, and visual effects are secondary, though it is solid in these areas as well. Wardrobe and set design are incredibly creative. Every single performance is excellent, from an unrecognizable and darkly funny Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson as a drunk with hidden virtue, Donald Sutherland as a conniving President, Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones as commentators, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as young men under tremendous pressure, and others. Special attention must be given, however, to Jennifer Lawrence, who evokes real humanity and grace as the main protagonist Katniss, a teen who volunteers her life to save her sister from certain death. She balances traditional “hero” traits like courage and intelligence with palpable vulnerability and fear.
As someone who has never read the books, I found that the film did a terrific job keeping me in the loop with a screenplay which effectively gives audiences a shorthand version of the mythology and rules of The Hunger Games (though more context regarding the history of this fictional world and the motives of the government would have been nice). Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) commits the error of filming his hand-to hand-combat scenes too closely and too shakily, making it difficult to follow the events at times, which is appreciated during moments of slaughter but not so much during important scenes of the heroine fighting for her life. No matter; this is compelling storytelling with profound themes. It's disturbing, intense, and definitely not for the faint of heart, but it has real virtue to it, making a strong case for peace and compassion that stands out starkly against the heartbreak of viciousness.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: The Hunger Games is rated PG-13. It has no sexuality or nudity and only a few mild profanities. It is very violent, however, with teens killing teens in gladiator-style combat, including stabbing, shooting with arrows, breaking necks, and deaths by animal attacks. Though the camera doesn’t linger on gore, leaving much to the imagination, what is shown in quickly edited shots is brutal and fairly bloody. The violence is purposeful and not glamorized (see review), but the film may be too much for younger teens and is definitely not for children.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS:The righteous do not revel in bloodshed, violence, or cruelty, but in compassion and mercy. There is no greater love than to be willing to die for someone else. No matter how corrupt the world around us gets, we needn't let it change us or rob us of our integrity.
Licensed marriage and family therapist. Husband. Father. Film critic.