So this is the real world. I’m not impressed.
Every person I see is wirelessly jacked into a worldwide party to which I’d never received an invitation. Their connections to each other are forged in some miserable shared robotic repetition. These people “tweet”. They “facebook”. I do not belong among them, and I think they’re starting to see that.
I hadn’t anticipated what it would be like to be outside of the close confines of the walls. They had become like skin, and without them I feared that everything I had been keeping inside me would come spilling out onto the downtown street corner to which I had wandered.
“But this is the way of the real world,” I remind myself. “If you don’t put yourself out there, you won’t be invited to that worldwide party.”
I want to belong, so I let it all out. A primal howl of mangled word viscera that spills and splashes the busy intersection with all that I once kept safely within. There is too much to properly process and assemble in an intelligible order. It just all comes out.
There’s still more in there, but I’ve got to rest a moment. I feel sweet relief, or perhaps hypoxia from several minutes without a drawn breath. A passenger in a BMW at the stop light reaches out and hands me a ten-spot. Tells me I look hungry, I should get a hot meal. When he pulls away I look up and see the movie theater across the street is playing, The Hunger Games.
So this is the real world.
The theater is packed. The seats are springy and uncomfortable. I retreat to the rear of the theater, slicing entry into the curtain covering the wall and cutting out a viewing hole. I once again relax in sweet, still confinement.
“The Hunger Games is based on a hugely popular book that has drawn the enthusiasm of these “young adults”. I’m not a man of such intellectual vanity that I feel I must read a book before seeing the movie. I’m not even a man of such intellectual vanity that I feel the need to read much of anything. Movies are so much more efficient. And as such, I require that a movie be self-contained and not depend on any other materials to make sense.
The world of The Hunger Games is supposedly a dystopian future in which an oppressive centralized government has some kind of beef with the population of the twelve “districts” that make up its empire. Or something. It’s kind of muddy as the story opens with what I’m assuming is a brief passage from the book. It’s something about treason and pageantry. It’s more like an abbreviated wink to those who came already well informed. To the uninitiated like me, it read with all the meaning of a Fresh Prince lyric.
Apparently, the government is pissed at the Districts, so they pick two “Tributes” each once a year to compete in “The Hunger Games”. The purpose that this serves is not made very clear in the movie. When we meet the starving heroine of District 12, Katniss, as played by Jennifer Lawrence, she is hunting in the rocky backwoods. She talks to some local beefcake about these games, and in their conversation it seems like the competition is about as bad as being forced into the worst episode of “Fear Factor”.
They both know they’re in the running to be drafted and, you know, they’re kind of bummed. And pretty. And manicured, shorn, sculpted, and made-up. The dread of a potential involuntary selection into gladiator games seems to do amazing things for your hair. As I face my own uncertain future, I find myself wondering what glorious paradise these two live in which achieving a level of dystopian starvation can make someone look like that.
When her young sister is drafted into the games in a solemn ceremony flanked by imperial guards dressed in Evel Knievel’s jumpsuit, Katniss offers to take her place. Apparently, these “Hunger Games” are no place for such a young child. It has all the meaning and dread of getting called in for jury duty, and is apparently easier to get out of since you can have someone swap out with you. Once picked, you’re not stuffed into a room with bad coffee and $5 per diem. You’re given feast after feast and undergo a series of waxes and beauty treatments that enhance the glamour that a life of desperation has already bestowed upon you. Katniss is the first to ever volunteer for this.
A second narrative begins in the audience. The phrase “in the book” becomes a common refrain. A dumpy little teenage stoner, who I secretly name “Stubby”, whispers to the girl he’s trying to impress how this scene or that differs from the book. Even with the added information Stubby provides, the story still does not resonate with me in a way that explains the level of enthusiasm which it has garnered.
The film rambles on into a boring, predictable training sequence. Katniss seems to need no training whatsoever. She comes to the games with the deadly accurate aim and stalking skills of someone trained for this her whole life. Despite that, Katniss is, you know, kind of bummed about being in the games.
But dammit if she isn’t the most popular girl in the country! Her entrance into the games, wearing a sci-fi, fire-spouting dress, establishes her as a fashion icon. The brazen moxie she displays while showcasing her skills to the pageant muckity-mucks earns her the highest point rating ever… whatever the Christ that means. I heard Stubby explain to his date that the point system has to do with the tribute’s odds of surviving. Or something.
A clunky, flaccid love story is introduced when the other tribute from District 12, Peeta, confesses his love for Katniss. This love story is about as passionate a firm handshake and less likely to end in pregnancy. Especially in light of the chunk of he-meat introduced earlier in the film that had actual chemistry with her.
When the titular “Games” start more than half-way into the god damned movie, it’s kind of brutal. The scene where they go for the weapons and a slaughter takes place is violent... kind of. It’s a bunch of quick cuts and missed glimpses at the results of the carnage. There’s a vibe of bloody chaos. It’s vicious, but society seems kind of stoked about it. And those who do possess some measure of inner reflection at living in a world in which kids wildly tear each other to pieces are, you know, kind of bummed about it.
The games are also when more diversions from the source book occur. Stubby walks his date through the finer points of what differs. Some of it made more sense given the additional data he provided, but the film fails miserably at conveying much of the story on its own. The predictability is forgivable. But the assumption of a pre-existing reference to add resonance and meaning to the film is fatal.
The Hunger Games has been compared, ad nauseum, to 2000’s Battle Royale, and rightfully so. But I find a comparison with the 1987 Schwarzenegger classic The Running Man to be more Illustrative of its shortcomings. The Running Man was more of a commentary on society than Hunger Games even briefly considers being. Take the awesome “Climbing for Dollars” commercial that cleverly and succinctly summed up this future state of the collective mind. Plus it had a guy getting split up the groin with a chainsaw. You know: entertainment. All Hunger Games has is a boring hybrid of NFL commentary and “American Idol” hype that seems almost pandering to the very thing it should be mocking.
Katniss, as the hero, goes through absolutely zero changes throughout the story. Her heart hasn’t hardened from the things she’s been forced to do, nor has it softened from the small kindnesses shown her. She’s the same pretty-yet-skilled girl she always was. Now she's just inconvenienced. It goes without fear of being a spoiler when I report that she wins the games, but she does so through passive resistance. The only kills she makes are in absolute self-defense. And that is not out of some cunning strategy on the part of the hero – it is out of some peacenik notion of the writer to make the hero so virtuous that the only way the plot will allow her to win is if she stumblefucks her way to victory. Mission accomplished.
This film speaks a language I don’t understand. Without possessing the decoder ring that is having read the book, it just feels like a poorly plotted, half-explained mess. In the knowing nods and chuckles of the audience at inside jokes which sailed far over my head, I felt more alienated than ever. The movie theater had once been my domain. It was a place that I possessed and captured on magnetic tape. Its soul was mine for sale. Now it is occupied by strangers who bring these strange customs.
But this is the real world. And it can be mine again.
Movie theaters are still a magical place where memories are made that cannot be forged in front of a television screen. Where Stubby successfully pulls off the ol’ “hole in the popcorn tub” trick on his date with rousing success and the long haired hippies in the front row can blaze up a joint packed with bud kinder than Mr. Rogers on Special K.
I do not belong among these people. But I do belong behind and above them, basking in their communion with that glorious silver screen, no matter what inexplicable dreck brings them in. In time, I will learn their language and understand what moves them. I want to love as they love so that one day I may fit in. One day when I don’t need the walls.
Image courtesy of the author.