Katniss Everdeen knows what day it is. She doesn't want to think about it though. The 16-year-old would much rather slip through her town's wire perimeter and do a little hunting in the woods. It's illegal, what she's doing. That fence is a barrier meant to keep everyone inside. But somebody's got to put a few scraps of meat on the family table.
And somebody else is supposed to be selected at the Reaping.
Even in the woods, she can't keep the Reaping at bay. And when her lifelong friend Gale finds her, it's all he can talk about. His name is in the mix 42 times. And never mind how many hers has been replicated; all that matters is that her little sister Prim's only appears on a single solitary slip. At least she doesn't have to worry about her.
Ever since the rebellion so many years ago, the Capitol has held an annual Reaping in Panem (a totalitarian-ruled country that's risen out of a civil war). It's a way to keep the dissidents in line while entertaining the "true" citizens of the Capitol. Each of the 12 districts must choose one boy and one girl "tribute" to represent them in the horrible Hunger Games. It's a televised twist on The Running Man, Gladiator, Lord of the Flies and The Lottery that the Capitolites can't get enough of: 24 teens enter a massive "arena"—only one exits.
They must fight to the death. For the cameras. For the country (they're told). For celebrity. For a lifetime supply of food and privileges.
It's disgusting as far as Katniss is concerned, a brutal and barbaric show. And we know before the names are read that she will be—by design or decision—one of those 24.
Her mother weeps. Her sister wails. Gale pines. But Katniss is numb. Maybe that's just the way you feel when you're about to die.
Based on the best-selling book by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is a futuristic parable that references and invokes modern struggles, raising questions of government abuse and cultural clashes. In the words of Parade's Emily Listfield, the story takes on the big issues of "war, power, sacrifice, personal ethics, the haves vs. the have-nots, and the dangerous nature of our increasingly voyeuristic society." She continues, "It's a call for holding on to humanity despite the most trying circumstances. … For kids growing up in a country that has been involved in military conflicts for the past 11 years, as well as adults faced with deep economic uncertainty, the message clearly resonates."
Indeed, cringing in front of the specter of hundreds of lost lives, Katniss refuses to lower herself to her dictatorial government's expectations. Life has great value, and she is determined to respect it. To do so she puts her own life in grave danger to help others—multiple times.
It's apparent that Katniss has been faithfully leading and providing for her family since her dad died and her mom retreated into a shell of who she once was. And part of caring for her family is volunteering to take Prim's place when it's her single solitary slip of paper that's pulled from the lottery bowl.
It's a huge deal. And it poignantly illustrates John 15:13's embrace of self-sacrifice: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
The boy selected from District 12 to join her is Peeta Mellark. And he matches Katniss stride for stride—particularly when it comes to trying to protect her. He would rather die—literally—than let her come to harm. "I don't want to be another piece in their game. I don't want them to change me into something I'm not," he says. "If I'm gonna die, I want to still be me."
A very young tribute named Rue helps Katniss survive by pointing out a way of escape when she's been treed by a band of "careers" and by putting healing leaves on her wounds after Katniss is stung by artificially amped up wasps.
We see many other, smaller gestures of kindness, solidarity and humanity throughout, and the film often points us toward them—and away from the "excitement" of the games. In a way the whole story serves as a warning, a "terrible mirror," says actress Jennifer Lawrence: "This is what our society could be like if we became desensitized to trauma and to each other's pain."
When a girl she's come to care deeply for is killed, Katniss adorns her body with flowers in a funereal-like ritual.
One tribute is dolled up by her "handlers" in such a way as to exploit exposed leg and cleavage. Katniss kisses Peeta on the cheek and then, at her mentor's prompting, gives him a full passionate lip-lock.
Katniss does ultimately kill in the games: accidentally (or at least inadvertently), while trying to protect Rue and in a "mercy" killing.
How graphic is this teen-on-teen carnage? "You don't need to be gratuitous in order to be honest and capture the intensity of the book," Hunger Games director Gary Ross said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "Is it violent? Yes. Do we back off from what it is? No, we don't. But I'm not interested in violence for violence's sake."
The result of Ross' vision is that the clashes and blows are filmed in herky-jerky snippets. We see bodies scattered across an open field with very evident wounds. Bloody and festering cuts, burns and gashes are fully visible on both Katniss' and Peeta's bodies. But in the actual heat of battle the camera flits in and away quickly. Repeatedly. But quickly.
"What Suzanne [Collins] has done brilliantly is create a series that is a critique of violence using violence to get that across," says David Levithan, one of her editors at Scholastic Press, "and that's a fine line."
Which is why it's still terribly hard to read the book or watch the movie at times. The career tributes are older kids from the richer districts who are trained from childhood to kill, and several of them decide to team up and hunt the remaining kids. We see them kill as a pack—delivering quick stabs with a knife and a spear—laughing as they call out encouragements to one another. We see a large teen snap another boy's neck. A dead teen is shown with an arrow in his chest, and a poisoned girl lies dead on the ground, her skin a light shade of blue. We see "news" footage of a boy swinging a blood-covered brick.
Two of the goriest kills involve a girl getting hit with a spear and then pulling the weapon from her abdomen, and another being swarmed by hundreds of the killer wasps.
Katniss is attacked by a knife-wielding girl; her forehead is slashed and she's pinned to the ground with a sharp blade to her throat. Katniss triggers a huge explosion that ends up knocking her down and briefly senseless.
A pack of huge dog-like beasts attack some of the tributes. Katniss hits one of them in the neck with an arrow, but it barely fazes the creature. A career tribute tumbles into the midst of these ravaging animals, and they start tearing at him (offscreen). Katniss unleashes an arrow to end his life quickly—perhaps the only morally questionable thing she does, violence-wise, in the whole movie. (In the book, there are hints of retaliation in her fighting; not so here.) The threat of a double suicide is used as a game strategy at one point.
Peeta and another tribute get into a punching, slamming scuffle. A small girl is rammed repeatedly into a wall until her neck snaps. Katniss tumbles down a hillside and is badly burned in a forest fire. A guard drags a screaming Prim out of a crowd of kids.
Crude or Profane Language
Three uses of "d‑‑n" and one or two of "h‑‑‑." Three or four exclamations of "oh my god."
Drug and Alcohol Content
When we first meet Katniss and Peeta's mentor, Haymitch, he staggers about while drinking a glass of booze. The next day he empties a flask into his morning coffee. And when Effie, the Capitol liaison in District 12, starts getting upset, Haymitch quiets her with, "Loosen your corset and have a drink."
The genetically engineered wasp venom triggers drug-like hallucinations.
Other Negative Elements
President Snow defends the games by saying, "Freedom has a cost," and that its winners are reminders of the government's "victory and forgiveness." He makes it clear he believes that "a little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous."
Gale advises Katniss to equate the people she'll be fighting with the animals she hunts.
Suzanne Collins' young adult bestseller-turned-box office smash is likely exactly what fans were hoping for. It's a faithful rendition of her dystopian tale that almost feels like a page-by-page illustration. It's violent, if relatively restrained. It's emotional. It's adventurous. It's instructive. It's a future fantasy that uses broad, colorful character contrasts, deep emotional angst and shocking physical conflict to, like many a sci-fi flick before it, challenge us in our own present world.
Its themes of government overreach, corruption of the powerful and the struggles of the common man ring true throughout. And in the midst of that, key characters make upright, noble choices. "It was Katniss' humanity that people gravitated to," director Gary Ross told Parade. "This is a girl who fights for survival and finds something she is willing to give her life for." Pressured to do what's always been done—join in the hunt and ignore the fallen—Katniss rebels. She and others stand up for the weak, care for the wounded and grieve over the dead, prompting unexpected reactions from the usually gleeful viewing audience.
And that's another thought-provoking element The Hunger Games presents: It can easily be seen as a scathing indictment of our often manipulative and crass media culture.
"What if one year everyone just stopped watching?" Gale asks. "Then they wouldn't have the games." And we can't help but be drawn to the logic in that statement, even if the TV show in question didn't feature teen killings.
Through use of a shaky hand-held camera and quick-cut, partially obscured glimpses of battle, blatant bloodshed is minimized. But the teen-on-teen savagery is more than just a little disturbing, make no mistake. Watching Katniss "put a boy down" in a "mercy" killing triggers a moral quagmire. Watching a group of children joyfully hunting their peers in a pack invokes cold chills. And watching even littler children in the Capitol pretend to hurt and kill with plastic toy swords drives home the point, saying, This is what happens when a culture fully embraces armed assault as entertainment.
To hear the Plugged In editors' discussion about The Hunger Games on our podcast, link to our Podcast page and look for #143. Also, read our Hunger Games-themed "Movie Monday" blog.