Summer blockbuster season starts early with the March release of The Hunger Games, one of the most anticipated films of the year. Though directed at a younger audience, the film appeals to both teens and adults.
Based on a bestselling novel of the same name, the story follows Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who lives in the country of Panem in post-apocalyptic North America. Most of the people of Panem live in fear of their government, the totalitarian Capitol, which intimidates and oppresses the population.
As punishment for rebelling against the Capitol many years ago, each of the 12 districts of Panem must provide one boy and one girl (known as “tributes”) to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death where only one person may emerge the victor.
Katniss, a competitor in these games, is not always likeable, but she is brave, compassionate and fiercely loyal to her family. After her father dies in a mining accident and her mother sinks into a deep depression, she takes responsibility for the welfare of her family—no easy feat given that she lives in District 12, the smallest and poorest district in Panem. And when her younger sister, Prim, is chosen by lottery to participate in the games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.
With 24 tributes fighting in the arena, the Hunger Games are war in miniature, and the story does not shy away from addressing the dehumanizing realities of combat situations. Prior to the games, Katniss’ friend, Gale, grimly suggests that killing another human being may not be so different from killing an animal, to which Katniss responds, “The awful thing is that if I can forget they’re people, it will be no different at all.” As Katniss battles the other tributes, she also struggles to retain her humanity—and see the humanity in others. And like a soldier returning home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder, Katniss is haunted by her experiences in the arena and filled with anger toward the Capitol for sending the young tributes to their death.
While Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, has stated that one of the purposes of the novel is to educate young people about war, the story also has a strong social justice theme. Collins sets up an obvious parallel between the Capitol and our world’s affluent societies which, while benefiting greatly from the cheap labour of people in developing countries, often turn a blind eye to their poverty. While the citizens of the Capitol live a life of luxury, the people of the districts, who produce the goods these citizens enjoy, can barely afford to eat. Many of them live in huts and do not have regular access to electricity. In District 12, where the main industry is coal mining, working conditions are unsafe and accidents are common. Watching The Hunger Games, it’s hard not to be disturbed by the Capitol’s attitude toward the districts and wonder what kind of a society would be OK with this arrangement. The answer, perhaps, hits too close to home.
As the film’s PG-13 rating suggests, The Hunger Games is not meant for children. It’s a dark film that explores some murky moral territory, and the level of violence may be a concern for some parents. However, this is no reason to write the film off. The violence portrayed in the film is disturbing because violence is supposed to be disturbing. This is one of the story’s key themes.
Rather than glorifying violence, the film demonstrates the importance of kindness and the power of love. This is seen most clearly in the friendships Katniss develops with two of her fellow tributes.
Given the popularity of the books, the buzz surrounding the Hunger Games film is not surprising. But with its strong themes and engaging characters, The Hunger Games is a rare blockbuster—one that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking.