Friday, October 5, 2012

Awkward worldbuilding in "The Hunger Games"

Warning: Contains spoilers for the movie "The Hunger Games". Obviously.

I never read "The Hunger Games". My wife did. She also devoured "Twilight", which I hate, so when she pushed me to watch the movie adaption, I was semi-enthusiastic, to say the least. After all, I went into the first Twilight-movie with her, and even she admitted it sucked. But the book is great! she never misses to tell me. This might be, I answer. Might be in a sense like it might be that all atoms in a given pebble simultaneously move in the same direction, lifting it up. Might be. So, when the next edition of what seemed to come from the same "girl stuff" direction came up, I expected a similar disaster. Upon watching the trailer, I was very sceptical whether they would be able to make a rather stupid premise halfway believable. I know that "Battle Royale" didn't, and this seemed to be essentially the PG-13 version of it. When I get into these moods about franchises my wife loves, she gives me this look of "I burn your Song of Ice and Fire books", so I know it's time to shut up and at least to pretend to be open-minded toward the franchise, if I can't avoid getting in touch with it. I really was determined to be open-minded, unlike with "Twilight". Perhaps "The Hunger Games" was somewhat decent, who knows. Surprisingly, it turned out it was. I like it better than "Battle Royale", by the way, which omits any attempt of world building just to see school children slaughter each other. "The Hunger Games" at least try. They fall short on multiple occasions, and I want to talk about them here because I should work, and this is the next best thing. 

Could it be a love triangle? That's something I haven't seen before in this kind of movie!

Luckily, no love triangle. The movie delivers the premise, i.e. children killing each other, and doesn't chicken out for some awkward romance including chastity and stares. For people not familiar with the franchise, short summary of the premise: in some bleak future or alternate reality or other planet (doesn't really matter), there are 13 districts - the capital, where the cool, rich and powerful people live, and the 12 surrounding districts living in poverty suppporting the decadent live in the capital. After a failed rebellion some seventy years ago, the Hunger Games were invented to remind the losers of their place; every year, each district must cast lots to determine two youths between 12 and 18 to fight in the Hunger Games. Fight to the death, that is. The winner becomes famous and may train future generations, keeping the wheel spinning. Since most children tend to lack paramilitary training, the evil empire(tm) trains them before the games and includes them in a giant show for the pleasure of the masses that is also shown in the districts. The show is also shown in the districts, as to deliver on the "oh my god they kill our children best stay put" propaganda theme. 

Certainly, marketing gorgeous youths in wet-look boosted rates somewhat.
If you now think that this is one of the most stupid evil empire(tm) plans you ever heard, you are right. To be fair, the movie does its best to approach the premise seriously, not messing it up with bare six-packs every two minutes like "Twilight" does. The human relations don't seem forced just for the sake of drama, since the movie has a storyline that actually gets exciting enough to carry the playtime of two-and-a-half hours. Some choices of the creators, however, tend to undermine the attempts of creating a believable world. Basically, there are three areas with major flaws that prevent a good immersion into Hunger-Games-world. The first is in the general look and asthetics. The second is in the writing of the background. The third is in the writing of the actual movie. We will examine these three bit by bit to make the point clear. 

Look in the face of famine and despair!
The asthetics. In its rather long opening and establishing of the premise, the movie fails to give a coherent picture of the twelve districts we should be rooting for later. So, they're basically poor and oppressed. People have to work hard, and in order to get some additional food (Hunger Games, remember), you can increase chances of being chosen for the actual games for CARE packages. Our protagonist, Katniss, also engages in some poaching. To drive home these points, we get some shots of mine workers looking like a 19th century drama about the plight of workers - all dirty, gaunt and unhappy - and shows crude huts where the people live in. For entertaintment, they basically have shitty recorders with flimsy image quality. Now look at the picture above. Katniss' hair is washed and styled, she wears make-up, and her clothing seems like fresh from the shop. Dissonances like this extend to the districts all the time. The show actually does a much better job in depicting the capital, where the style is much more coherent. But every time we are in the districts (not much time, granted), the asthetical elements don't add up. Rich clothing, make-up and the like are put casually next to the intended poverty and despair. That way, I can never really buy the situation in the districts as genuine. 

Nothing better to stir up rebellion than defiant gestures. Was the editing guy asleep, evil empire(tm)?
The writing of the world. I already mentioned it does a way better job than "Battle Royale", to be sure. But there are some things that are stretches, at best, and unfortunately very common to many fictional stories. The most obvious thing is the timescale. The Hunger Games, we are told, go on for some seventy years. That means, no one who actually witnessed the first Hunger Games is still alive. Seeing how fragile the whole system is in the actual movie, one wonders how they could get seventy issues out of this without ever two protagonists falling in love, without helping each other or without trying to circumvent rules in the face of certain death. Assuming a static environment, especially in a highly engineered world like this one is simply not believable. The huge time frame is a fault in many stories, as I mentioned. It is used as a cheap means for creating a feel of epicness, and some franchises need it. This one doesn't. The whole premise would work even better if these were the fourth, or maybe seventh, Hunger Games. Think about it - they rebelled seventy years ago, were defeated, and now they take their children ritually slaughtered for seven decades? Without anyone even alive to tell of the initial attempt? Think about just how long a real-world political consens tends to hold. Twenty years, perhaps thirty, before someone wants to radically change it? You can't oppress a people, especially in such a gap between incomes of capital and district, without some idea of how you could overcome your ridiculously out-numbered oppressors at some point. With the shock of defeat fresh, however, the premise would work way better. Since the seventy-year gap is never ever used in the movie, it is also totally unnecessary. Heck, just not mentioning the time frame would have sufficed. 

Being evil requires some ridiculous beard.
The writing of the movie. Seriously, after watching it, I still have no idea how the Hunger Games are supposed to work. I know what they are about, all right. Whoever kills everyone else is winner. But how are they managed? Is the forest actually real or a controlled environment in a giant dome, "Truman Show"-style? Never explained. What are the rules of this thing, and why do they change them mid-game without anyone complaining? As I understand it, it's a huge popular success in the capital, with people betting on the outcome. How can they simply change the rules midgame? Questions like this keep piling up. I never get a sense for how all of this is supposed to work, I'm just explicitly told by the movie that it does. This would be no problem if they stayed with Katniss and the other kids, but they keep cutting to the guys actually running the show, perhaps to give Mr. Evil more face-time, I don't know, but if you do that you have to give me some of the logic their world is operating on. The movie simply doesn't. That makes all these sequences a mess and destroys the effort of coherent world building. 

Which is a shame because there's quite some of it going on.
I only bother with it because I have the feeling that the movie could have been better if they had taken more care of coherent world building. As I understand it, there are two sequels in the pipe, including the uprising in the districts (at least, the movie finale hinted heavily at it). But I have no connection to the districts. I don't believe them. The capital, I believe. The gorgeous style of their clothing and hair, the heavy make-up, the over-the-top performance of everything fits nicely in the decadence-theme. They couldn't decide how to portray the districts, however. Are they poor, or are they just choosing to take on "poor" as a fashion style? It often seems like the latter. I hope that if they make more movies out of it, that these issues get adressed better. I for one would like to watch how it goes on.


  1. Nice write-up. I quite liked the Hunger Games books, though they can't hold a candle to, say, ASOIAF, they're a pretty good read in between more "high-brow" lit.
    I don't know if I want to watch the adaptation, since I fear the romance might consume too much time and distract from the story.
    Also, I'm bothered by the casting of Katniss. I'll never get behind why they cast the round-faced chick with the pudgy little apple-cheeks for her. Wasn't Katniss supposed to be, you know, kinda underfed? Oh, well. Since she can also shoot a bow as unrealistically good as the lovechild of Legolas and Hawkeye, maybe her other superpower is looking-healthy-while-starving.
    In conclusion, I'll wait till the movie is on free-TV, if I ever watch it. But the books are OK.

  2. Well, there's few romance in it, so might be worth a shot in that regard. The thing about being well-fed is already said in the article ;)

  3. Stefan,

    I would suggest reading the books.

    But plaguing the books is a similar lack of world building. This is quite noticeable since I read them right after I finished ASoIaF. If the book was more R than PG-13 I think they could've been particularly awesome.

    But the length of the books will allow you to breeze though them fast, and I would predict you would find some enjoyment.

    My 2 cents