Get thee to the Cineplex. The Hunger Games gets an A+ for conservative values. At the suggestion of my 23-year-old son, who is a film editor, we decided to take it in on opening day. Hunger Games is based on the first book of a trilogy written for adolescents by Suzanne Collins. I have not read them, but I will now that I have seen the movie, which tells the story of a brutal reality-TV survival game sponsored by an oppressive state. The game is intended to remind citizens in districts away from the country’s capital of their subjugation after a failed rebellion several years before. A boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen in lotteries from each district as “tributes” to participate in an annual nationally televised competition to see which individual can survive in the wild. The contestants are expected to kill each other, struggling to become the last girl or boy standing.
The movie tracks the exploits and exploitation of a 16-year-old girl (Katniss, played by the superb Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone) who volunteers to replace her younger sister in the deadly game. (She has been the sole provider for her family ever since her father was killed in a coal-mining accident, leaving her mother unable to function.) The film is part Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” part Orwell’s1984, and part Gladiator. I was skeptical at first as we were practically the only people in the theater early on a Friday afternoon not in the 12-to-16 age bracket. The audience was generating an adolescent din before the lights went down. Then, the crowd fell silent, except for occasional muffled tears (when a beloved character dies) and cheers (when boy gets girl and the good guys win). It gave me faith in the future to be in this audience (apparently made up of roughly equal numbers of girls and boys), knowing they were riveted by the story (which they presumably already knew). And I hope they were absorbing some of the strong conservative messages embedded in the film. The totalitarian state here has deprived all the citizens outside the capital of their liberty and livelihood, using them as tools to support the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed in the capital. But citizens, including our heroine, engage in little acts of defiance (in her case, hunting small game in restricted areas to feed her family). One senses the undercurrent of rebellion about to break forth at any time; a sense shared by the powers that be — embodied in the leader of the country (played by Donald Sutherland) — who try to walk a fine line between exploiting the Hunger Game participants as propaganda and reigning them in to avoid galvanizing the opposition. This is a movie that makes you root for personal liberty and against state control. But there is more. Placed in the Hunger Games arena, Katniss is engaged in a desperate battle for survival. Although she is deadly accurate with a bow and arrow, she chooses to survive on her own in remote regions of the arena, and only returns to the fight when the manipulators force her with a manufactured natural disaster. Faced with the pure savagery of the games, she maintains her capacity for compassion and kindness and kills only in self-defense. Though exploited, she maintains her integrity and never becomes a tool of the state. In fact, at times, she is probably manipulating the state. This is subtle but strong stuff; and in an adolescent movie — who knew? The film is also a telling critique of our current culture, which values celebrity, reality TV, and superficial style (the culture in the capital here) over family, freedom, and compassion (that’s our heroine). Returning home after the movie, I was surprised to read that some liberals were claiming the movie as their own on at least three grounds:
1) Class warfare. The rich 1 percent is living off the impoverished people, sort of an Occupy Wall Street argument. Ha! The rich 1 percent in this movie is in the nation’s capital, apparently with nothing to do except watch reality TV shows and live off the backs of the people. Doesn’t the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area have the highest median income in the country?
2) Eco-alarmism. The tyrannical state (the former U.S.?) arose from cataclysmic environmental abuses. Maybe that is in the book. It is not in the movie. There are some hints that all may not be right in the environment, but this film is no futuristic Inconvenient Truth. When hunting, Katniss sees her first deer in over a year — and promptly takes aim — but the forest nevertheless appears to provide sufficient game to keep Katniss’s family alive. (Evidently, it is the state’s rationing of food that causes widespread hunger outside the capital.) The forest in which the Hunger Game is fought is lush, almost primeval; though one cannot be sure to what extent it is manipulated by the state. What’s more, the heroine is from a coal-mining family, hardly the green movement’s favorite industry.
3) Feminism. The heroine is a feminist archetype, matching wits and strength with the best of them. Well, I am a feminist, too, and I like women who defend their families, fight for their freedom, maintain their compassion, oppose big government, can shoot an apple from a pig’s mouth yards away, and still look great. I am thinking more Sarah Palin than Nancy Pelosi. . . .
According to the Wall Street Journal, Hunger Games had the third highest grossing opening weekend of all time. Its appeal reached well beyond adolescent girls, with the audience split roughly 60 percent female to 40 percent male, and 56 percent of the audience was over the age of 25. As word gets out that this is a movie extolling freedom over big government, it is bound to attract more adult moviegoers. Go see it. If it is sold out, check out the Navy Seals in Act of Valor for your conservative film fix. — Monica Mullin is a lawyer, writer, and editor in New York City.
— Monica Mullin is a lawyer, writer, and editor in New York City.