Release Year: 2012
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Director: Gary Ross
Writer: Gary Ross, Billy Ray, Suzanne Collins (novel)
Welcome to Panem, the fashionable dystopia where all the kids want to be.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future North America, The Hunger Games follows the adventures of Katniss Everdeen, a dirt-poor teenager who becomes a hero after victory in a life-or-death televised gladiator-style contest that's obsessively watched, Truman Show-style, all over the country. It's the ultimate reality TV show, meant to entertain and distract the oppressed masses so they won't revolt against their authoritarian government.
Katniss is a super-oppressed member of a super-oppressed "District," whose sister is chosen by lottery as a Tribute, one of 24 contestants who will compete to the death in her nation's annual Hunger Games.
Only one will survive.
Katniss volunteers to take her place, natch. The Tributes are treated like rock stars prior to sending them to their near-certain deaths, complete with designers, stylists, advisors, and an all-out media blitz. But Katniss has more at stake than just staying alive. If she can survive her psychopathic peers trying to get all stabby on her, she might just start a political revolution.
The books on which the Hunger Games films are based became smash bestsellers, which meant that a movie adaptation would follow like day follows lucrative-franchise-starting night. Luckily, author Suzanne Collins had no intention of handing her baby over to some evil studio unattended. With Collins helping to write the screenplay and generally riding herd on the whole thing, the 2012 movie version of The Hunger Games was just as textured, detailed, and all-around awesome as the book.
Collins had the usual dystopian science fiction tropes in her books. There's a Big Bad totalitarian government (Panem) crushing the people beneath its stormtrooper boots, and a few just-plain-folks figuring out ways to strike back. But Collins added a fantastic twist: a media culture disturbingly similar to ours. That brought the dystopia a lot closer to home. The violence, the artifice, the obsession with celebrity glamour—way too familiar for comfort.
Add to that a nifty connection to an ancient Greek myth, loads of action, a little romance, and Jennifer Lawrence leaping into superstardom as Katniss, and you had a recipe for critical and box-office success. Audiences loved it. It raked in over $700,000,000 globally at the box office on a budget of $78 million (source), a pretty sweet return on investment. Young Katniss wannabes poured into archery classes by the hundreds. People even watched archery at the Olympics for a change.
Three sequels later, the original film still thrills. Get ready to scheme against the regime with Katniss—and may the odds be ever in your favor.
A bunch of grim, powerless teens being forced to spend long periods of time in a closed environment they can't leave, subjected to oppressive arbitrary rules dictated by adults, locked in a punishing social hierarchy, being scrutinized and judged every minute, in constant competition with their peers.
That's not Panem—that's high school.
At least that's the view of Laura Miller, a book critic at the New Yorker magazine. In contemplating the reasons for the phenomenal popularity of dystopian YA fiction, Miller concludes that teens relate to the genre because it isn't fiction to them—it's their life, "a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience: doesn't everything feel like life or death on the battlefield known as the high-school cafeteria?" (source). Like Katniss (or Tris or Jonas, for that matter), teens can feel powerless in a world where adults make the rules and they have to comply.
In this view, the Games are the ultimate graduation requirement, and Katniss is the one who gets into Harvard.
YA dystopias like Panem hit on all the miserable parts of the adolescent experience. Adults make the rules and the schedules. Kids are forced to conform to society's ideas of beauty; they're constantly watched and being scrutinized; they're soaked in a media-obsessed culture that warps their ideas and sets impossible standards of appearance and success. In probably the most extreme example—Ishiguro's chilling Never Let Me Go, human clones are even created just to be harvested for spare parts when they reach young adulthood.
Point is, when you're 16, it's easy to feel that nobody cares what you want or who you are, really. You're just a cog in somebody else's wheel.
It's a pretty bleak scenario, one that invites rebellion via the Hero's Journey (see our Hero's Journey" section for more about it), of which The Hunger Games is a perfect example. You've got Katniss, called to a life-or-death adventure, undergoing trials and tests before emerging triumphant in a battle to the death, and reaping great rewards for herself and her family in the process. That's the Hero's Journey right down to the buttons.
Disclaimer: Suzanne Collins herself isn't so sure about Miller's theory. She insisted she wasn't writing about teenagers at war with authorities; she was writing about war for teens. And anyway, maybe you're happy and thriving in high school. Maybe you feel like you've got some autonomy and find the powers-that-be to be benevolent and attentive.
Still, we think the film's popularity speaks to universal teen concerns about powerlessness and conformity. Miller notes that YA dystopian fiction differs from the adult variety in that the latter usually starts grim and and ends worse. (Think Orwell's 1984) You just can't do that to young adults; they deserve some hope that eventually they'll regain some control over their lives, just like Katniss.
It's important to remember your own struggle to thrive in situations where it feels like the deck is stacked against you, because someday you might be the one making the rules. Maybe fans of The Hunger Games will make sure that when they're running the world, it won't look anything like Panem.
District 12 is supposed to be coal mining country, and the producers made that part of the movie in nearby North Carolina because of how it looked like Kentucky and Western Pennsylvania. The best part of all? Jennifer Lawrence, who won the role of Katniss over some tough competition, is from that neck of the woods. She was born and raised in Louisville, KY. Her big breakout film—Winter's Bone, which scored her an Oscar nomination—is set in the same patch of turf. She really is Katniss, isn't she? (Source)
Gary Ross was an old Hollywood hand by the time he got to The Hunger Games, and frankly, blockbusters are in his blood. His father, Arthur A. Ross, was also a screenwriter whose credits include The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Great Race, and a whole passel of television shows. Arthur Ross was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s, which may have helped his son understand what it means to have a whole government or society turn against you. (Source)
If Liam Hemsworth's name sounds familiar, it probably is. He has an older brother named Chris, who happens to star in a completely different series of blockbuster films you may have heard of.
Your grandparents might find that Katniss's mockingjay whistle sounds familiar. It was the love theme from the 1968 film Romeo and Juliet. Those original "star cross'd lovers" had a few obstacles to their relationship, too. Unfortunately, their suicide pact succeeded. (Source)
The Wiki Site
Of course The Hunger Games has a wiki. Here's what it has to say about the movie.
Your one-stop shopping network for all of the critics' responses to the movie. They seem to dig it.
Oh, it's based on a book? We hadn't heard.
Catching Fire (The Book)
As you may have gathered, this isn't the end of the saga: Collins wrote two more books, which got turned into three more movies. Because profit. Here's the Shmoop page for the first book sequel, Catching Fire.
Mockingjay (The Book)
We couldn't leave you hanging without a link to the third and final book in the series. (You're welcome.)
Mockingjay, Part 1
The final Hunger Games novel was too big for one movie. Hollywood obliged, for reasons that certainly have nothing to do with an extra movie making them giant piles of money.
Mockingjay, Part 2
It all ends here… and seriously, the remaining films in the saga are pretty much just as good as this one.
Katniss herself talks to the folks at Collider about the role that made her a star.
Book vs. Movie
Entertainment Weekly takes a very critical look at the film and what it misses about the book (in their opinion, of course).
Roger Ebert's Review
The late great Roger Ebert lays out his thoughts on the film. Spoiler alert: thumbs up.
Direct from the Director
New York Times readers convince Gary Ross to explain it all.
Did They Even Read the Book?
Some viewers expressed shock and anger when they realized that Rue and Thresh were (gasp) African Americans. The New Yorker has some ideas about some of the racist reactions to the film among young people. Sad.
Katniss v. Bella
No contest, according to Rolling Stone
J Law Speaks
Another interview with the divine Miss L on her big role.
The cast of the movie talks about their roles.
A Fistful of Collins
The original author, Suzanne Collins, talks about The Hunger Games in a series of shorts.
Here's the official trailer for the film.
Here's the official poster for the film.
Ready for Her Close-Up
Jennifer Lawrence behind the scenes.
The actors who play some of the other Tributes pose for the camera.
Don't you just want to wipe that grin off his face?