Perhaps because it’s based on a lively trilogy of novels for supposed teenagers, more probably because its writers and directors knew how to have a good time with stereotypes, The Hunger Games movie series is attractive because it is so eclectic, because it raids whatever cultural bank or shopping mall is handy. The heroine’s name combines a plant with a character from Thomas Hardy: Katniss Everdeen. If you frivolously mishear it as Catnip, as I did, you can be reassured: that’s what a friend calls her in the novel. The chief bad guy is called Coriolanus, and the place where it all happens, to quote the first book, is a ‘country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America’, now called Panem. The allusion is to Juvenal’s ‘bread and circuses’, but as pronounced in the movies it sounds like the name of a defunct airline.
The novels by Suzanne Collins, who also had a hand in writing the movies, were published in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and by 2012 their sales had broken the record set by the Harry Potter books. The four movies – strange how three keeps becoming four in the film world – appeared in 2012, 2013, 2014, and last month. The Roman themes are everywhere and that’s what the games are about, except that the people just get the circus, no bread. The circus is an annual fight to the death among teenagers chosen by lottery, two from each of the 12 districts that, along with the Capitol, make up the country. Actually there are 13 districts, but we don’t know that until the third movie, Mockingjay Part I: a district that has purportedly been destroyed has literally gone underground and is now the centre of the resistance movement. The dictator’s idea is that if people have to lose their children and watch them die on television all notions of rebellion will be perpetually dispersed. He’s wrong, of course, but it’s a great theory for an evil dictator to have, and it makes you wonder if a similar spirit isn’t behind a lot of programme planning in the real world: the unflagging coverage of Donald Trump, for example, which humiliates us as we watch it. Why do we watch it? Ask the dictator, he knows.
The resistance offered by our heroine Katniss is unintentional at first, or at least unpolitical. Showing entirely the wrong spirit, she suggests a suicide pact to Peeta, her partner from District 12, instead of killing him and becoming the winner. This is where they both should have ended, but there were more books and movies in the offing, and Coriolanus decides to let them live on as a poster-couple for the regime: they can distract the people with their great love story. For a while. Coriolanus’s cunning plan is to celebrate Panem’s 75th year by staging a game starring only winners of previous games: there are some tough people in this set, who will easily take care of Katniss and Peeta. He’s wrong again, but not in the way we perhaps expect. Our heroes are among the six survivors, but then things go awry. The master of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (even comic eclecticism can go too far), is secretly working for the rebels, and snatches Katniss and two other survivors to take them to join the resistance in District 13. Unfortunately, Coriolanus has managed to capture the other survivors, and much of what follows in the story depends on the way Katniss and Peeta feel about themselves and each other in their respective situations. She becomes a resistance heroine; he becomes a tortured government stooge.
There is a great moment near the end of Mockingjay Part I where Coriolanus allows Peeta to be rescued so that he can kill Katniss: he’s been brainwashed into hating her and programmed as a murder weapon. He nearly makes it too, and the attempt provides the best sequence in all four films. Katniss, her face bruised and her neck in a brace, gets up from her hospital bed and wanders into a place where she hears the leader of the rebels making uplifting propaganda out of the triumph of Peeta’s rescue. Then she turns away and finds herself peering into Peeta’s room: he is strapped to his bed, and thrashing about in a crazed fury. The screen goes black, end of movie.
Peeta’s brain gets unwashed, but very slowly, and he’s an unreliable ally throughout Mockingjay Part II – at one point he kills a colleague by pushing him into a vast sea of oily lava. I won’t spoil – or do I mean improve – the suspense of the last movie by telling the story, except to say that there is a grand, stylised, violent climax and Coriolanus is dealt with, and that the efforts to provide a quietly up-beat domestic ending after that – what could be more up-beat than the death of a memorable bad guy? – are truly excruciating.
There are some wonderful performances in these films, starting with that of Donald Sutherland as the bad guy. White-haired, bearded, as jovial as he is sinister, he makes dictatorship look like an intelligent sadist’s dream. In Mockingjay Part I, his aides think it is time for him to have Katniss killed, because she has been visiting a hospital and stirring up revolt. He says no, then pauses. ‘Kill the wounded.’ Not everyone could say that line with the discreet relish that Sutherland conveys.
Jennifer Lawrence is remarkable as Katniss. She looks vaguely morose even when she is happy, and she has the quality, rare in a movie star, of being able to look glamorous at times and a pudgy mess at others without changing her character. Julianne Moore is very good too, as Alma Coin, president of District 13. She is smooth and eloquent, and no one suspects her of being anything other than the idealistic leader of the opposition. Perhaps the Mao suit might have given us a clue, and we should have known that in this sort of fiction all leaders are bad guys in the end, and most of one’s pals, sooner or later, go over to the dark side. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Plutarch, died during the shooting of Mockingjay Part I, but left enough footage for all but a few scenes in the last movie. He is genial and scornful at the same time, a sort of (possibly) virtuous counterpart to Sutherland.
The eclecticism I mentioned earlier is especially evident in the movies’ unlikely tones. Every season of the games is orchestrated as a show, with producers and designers, as if killing and dying were just an excuse for expensive art and theatricals. Elizabeth Banks, as the producer Effie Trinket, wears one improbable wig after another, and would win any prize available for the most extravagant false eyelashes. Stanley Tucci, as a television presenter, camps up every act of violence and political betrayal as if it were just another morsel for the Minotaur of showbusiness to eat. Collins has said she got her idea for certain aspects of the series from watching footage of the Iraq War alternately with game shows. But how the movies manage so successfully to do the campy stuff along with troubled teenage romance and the desolation of bombed cities, is a question we would have to put to the directors, Gary Ross (Hunger Games) and Francis Lawrence (the other three films). It certainly works, because the comedy and romance and terror are vividly there. We can’t reconcile them, and we would be in bad shape if we could.
There is one effect that may link these pieces, even if the joke is on us. We keep forgetting, as the characters do, that the world of The Hunger Games is one where nothing goes unfilmed. When Katniss visits a hospital in District 8, a place that has been savagely bombed by Capitol forces, she takes a film crew with her, so that her distress can be part of resistance propaganda. This is mildly distasteful, but we see the point. Then we glimpse Coriolanus far away in his mansion watching her visit live on screen, and distaste and/or sympathy turn to a form of fear for her and everyone else. This is not an invasion of privacy (Katniss’s trip wasn’t private): it’s a cancellation of the very idea of place. There isn’t anywhere to go, you can’t leave your observers behind. All this vision needs for it to sneak into the next dimension is a mode of film that will show us things not when they happen, but just before.