Isn’t it peculiar that in a movie called “The Hunger Games” we never actually see anyone hungry? Eating, yes:
The train to the Capitol is filled with treats, as is the penthouse. The Gamemakers have a pig (sans apple). Katniss shares a roll with Gale. Katniss gets burned bread from Peeta. Katniss roasts a squirrel. Katniss shares a groosling with Rue. Peeta slurps some broth. The old man in District 12 munches on something with tiny bones.
What seems to be missing is a portrayal of the not-eating. The District 12 of the books is described as a place where people are literally starving to death. The people of the Seam walk out into the streets, dazed from lack of food, and stumble along until the life leaves their bodies. When Katniss and Gale drag a single deer back from the woods, there is a riot over so much meat. The two teens sell the remainder of the carcass and still make more money than they’ve ever had before.
In one of the opening scenes of the movie, Gale deliberately ruins Katniss’s shot at a deer.
Where’s the disconnect?
The root of the problem seems to stem from the fact that book and film are different mediums. In prose, it’s simple to describe extreme poverty and leave the details to the reader’s own brain. But in a visual medium like film, the viewer receives description firsthand, primarily through the sense of sight. It’s one thing to read about starvation or sex or kids fighting to the death. It’s another to actually see it.
So part of the issue has to be the graphic nature of seeing people slouched in the streets, dying from starvation. The strength of infomercials about starving children in third-world countries comes from the audience seeing the stick-skinny arms, the protruding ribs, the distended bellies. It’s disturbing and designed to induce empathy, to get the viewer to say, “Make it stop!” The sad Sarah McLaughlin animal commercials succeed in the same fashion. But the movie portrayal deliberately avoids such heart-wrenching images. Sure, the people of District 12 are poor as dirt, but they all seem pretty well-fed.
The only empathy that I ended up feeling for the denizens of District 12 was in the vein of, “Sorry you’re stuck in 1950s Appalachia. That’s a bummer. Better start building rockets so you can win the science fair.”
Another problem film has with depicting extreme hunger: it’s generally not okay to starve your actors to such extremes. Now, big-name actors will do this on occasion in order to portray specific roles, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Matt Damon in Courage Under Fire, and Christian Bale in The Machinist. But asking scores of extras (particularly young extras) to do the same is completely unrealistic.
But wait! you say. One of the best makeup teams in Hollywood worked on this movie.
Everything from wigs to wounds was executed with great attention to detail. You wouldn’t have to actually starve the children, just fake it. And you wouldn’t have to show all of the District, but perhaps just one or two people to illustrate the hunger of the people in the Seam. If you had to, you could just focus on Katniss in the rainy scene, so it’s less like she’s taking a nap against a tree and more like she’s actually starving when Peeta chooses to throw bread at her.
Yes, the movie could have done any of those things, but ultimately that wasn’t the direction it took.
The hunger was left by the wayside to focus on the games.
Do I blame the movie’s creators?
Not really. Swords and bows are more exciting than a milk-producing goat. Exposition and conveying a relationship is more crucial than Katniss bringing home some venison. To be fair, there were allusions to being hungry – showing Katniss’s excitement over Gale’s roll, the long panning shot of the ridiculous food on the train – so I give them props for that.
Overall, though, the movie didn’t succeed at showing the desperation and hunger conveyed in the book. It wasn’t keyed into the basic needs that caused Katniss and Gale to take tesserae and risk worse odds in the Reaping. We don’t hear why Gale has forty-two entries – the audience only gets a hurried warning from Katniss to Prim in the goodbye scene to understand that. This absence is nothing near enough to condemn the film for;
The Hunger Games is one of the more successful adaptations I’ve seen in a while. But the lack of a depiction of a District both impoverished and starving was just enough of a irritant for me to pick at. No hungry people there.
Instead, the Hunger Games movie presents us with charismatic, well-fed young actors to identify with and root for, in the tradition of Hollywood. The characters are groomed so that the audience will like them and then spend money seeing the movie. It’s shallow, and should make any fan uncomfortable even as they revel in the movie’s success: we’ve been cast as the culture Katniss combats. Yikes.
I think I need some comfort food.