A Brief Look Back at ‘THE HUNGER GAMES’ and Its Surprising Relevance In Contemporary Culture


Screen shot 2015-11-20 at 6.45.48 AMJames Cole Clay // Film Critic

The cultural criticism of THE HUNGER GAMES film/book series is part of the reason why it has became such a phenomenon that all ages have enjoyed across the world. At first, what appeared to be yet another rehash of a YA book series, actually had something more relevant on its mind. Jennifer Lawrence, who starred as the “it girl” of Panem, Katniss Everdeen, became a worldwide star, and with credible supporting cast audiences, latched onto this franchise because it’s more than just a reductive “girl-powered” franchise.

Readers of the novels have taken kindly to the Lionsgate produced film series that split up the three books into four films, a process that worked in favor of the Harry Potter franchise but caused a sputter in this instance. Should these films have been split up? From a creative approach, this is essentially waving a giant foam finger that says capitalism, the very same notion the story is fighting against. However, according to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, THE HUNGER GAMES series has grossed $2.3 billion (3 films) in ticket sales against a $458 million (4 films) budget. This is fairly moderate for an epic franchise, and regardless of how one feels about the series, it provides Lionsgate ample opportunities to take on new and interesting projects, which hopefully doesn’t involve a SAW reboot.

The dystopian world of Panem lead by the totalitarian Capitol served as a bit of an education for the young adults the films were targeting and quite possibly a remembrance for those who have lost sight of their own daily world perceptions. To quote Kanye West, “having money is not everything, not having it is” is the seminal reason why the Hunger Games existed in Panem. The segregation between the haves and have nots served as an astute way to articulate the real world problems that are facing our country and the world currently. The liberal politics of THE HUNGER GAMES provided a beacon of hope for filmgoers, and no matter where they stood politically, a film series of this magnitude had to break down at least some social barriers. First and foremost, this film is here to entertain, to tell a story and put butts in seats, but it’s certainly a commendable feat for a franchise to actually speak to the people who are buying the tickets (besides the 1% and Donald Trump sympathizers). And even though the first two entries, THE HUNGER GAMES and CATCHING FIRE, were much better films than the fractured MOCKINGJAY, the latter upped the political ante to juxtapose the aristocrats versus the proletariat. The films decidedly poked holes in both viewpoints led by Katniss and reinforced by Plutarch Heavensbee and District 13 President Alma Coin, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore respectively.

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, from left, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. (Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate)

L-R: Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in a scene from THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Public image plays an crucial role for the capital’s stranglehold on the other districts. If they can control the image of the tributes thrusted into the games they can gain sponsorship and revenue streams to in turn oppress the very spectators they are claiming to be entertaining. This is what reality television has been outwardly doing for years now, except the only thing murdered in that arena is character.

Katniss’ stylist, Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, was there not only to serve as her ally as she went through the whirlwind of PR that accompanies the yearly games. He was there to reinforce her identity as a human. And what appeared to the Capitol as a manufactured style, an oppressed identity that was in fact once unknown perforation within their ideals that could be exploited by their skewed perception of a feminine identity. Cinna designed the “Girl On Fire” dress in the infamous scene from the first film and this not only makes for one of the more successful scenes in the entire series, but also plays the idea of gender roles within a YA property. On the surface, it’s pretty to look at, but the filmmakers subverted the public’s opinion and revealed, ‘yes Katniss is a pretty face,’ but as an audience we know there is more that lies beneath. It’s not the truth that matters, it’s the perception of the truth that really counts, and as far as that scene is concerned, it raised many more questions that gave the first two films a large depth of field to meddle with.

The success of THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has opened many a door for female lead roles. Yes, Sarah Connor— the Linda Hamilton rendition— of THE TERMINATOR franchise would kick Katniss’ ass any day of the week and she was introduced over 30 years ago. That didn’t really work to promote diversity and in a way Lawrence became a version of her alter ego she has portrayed in four films now. From her open letter about the wage gap in Hollywood, to journalists hanging on her every word and last year’s photo leak– Hell, Lawrence tripping at the Berlin premiere of MOCKINGJAY – PT. 2 made world-wide news. It’s stressful being under the tedious eye of the press and she handles it with a goofy smile. Furthermore, while the series has several shortcomings (mainly with the last two films), Lawrence has opened up a worldwide discourse within the film community to open the doors for not only women on film but people of color. It’s weird and seems almost ludicrous that a YA book adaptation has made such an impact socially than the general public have realized. While nobody is really clambering for a Panem themed park where they can taste the famous gamey rabbit stew of District 12, there has been an influence that just may help get the wheels of change moving at a faster RPM.

Lawrence as the beloved Katniss in MOCKINGJAY - PT. 1. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Lawrence as the beloved Katniss in MOCKINGJAY – PT. 1. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

For all of the social ramifications and comments THE HUNGER GAMES has made, it still has a romance that we can all feel warm and gooey about. The easiest comparison to make of this series in terms of the romance is TWILIGHT. Bella (Kristen Stewart) was a prize to be won by either the glimmering vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson), or the gruff lycanthrope Jacob (Taylor Lautner). While it’s difficult to recall the intricacies of those films (if any), the love triangle was a one-dimensional relationship. Maybe Bella wanted to be fought over by two hunky dude-bros, but ultimately the relationship dynamic was created on an assembly line made to adhere to the male gaze, which as we all know was NOT the target demographic for those films.

The District 12 romantic sparring between Katniss and her two gentleman suitors, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), was much more sophisticated– a choice that is based upon logic and love rather than a blind passion. Gale is the standard ideal of masculinity within the story, a solider who follows orders and is much too simple a obedient for a woman like Katniss. Despite their longstanding relationship, which started after each of their fathers died in an explosion, they both secretly know something is missing from their connection. Peeta is a more complex individual who is scorned by the love he has for Katniss and is described by her as “known for being nice.” The triangle in the series is fully fleshed out, and while each corner of the triangle is quite often disconnected from one another, the tension is always in the forefront right until the end. And even though Peeta is described as the nice guy, he’s got one key quality that Gale will never have: he’s mysterious.

By no means is this a comprehensive piece on the series, it’s merely a few key elements that stuck out and will be interesting to look back on decades from now to see if these themes are still relevant in social discourse.

Read Courtney Howard’s review of MOCKINGJAY – PT. 2 here.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.