Hungry for the “Hunger Games” Movie

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is one of the most popular new science fiction series of the last several years. And now there is going to be a Hunger Games movie, with Jennifer Lawrence recently selected to play main character Katniss Everdeen. I had been hoping that Hailee Steinfeld (another finalist for the role)might get the nod because of her excellent work in True Grit. But perhaps Lawrence will turn out to be as good or better.

Hunger Games could well make an excellent movie. Its strengths and weaknesses are the opposite of those of the stereotypical science fiction novel, which is strong on world-building but weak on characterization and literary technique. By contrast, Collins’ series is strong on the latter and weak on the former.

The core plot of the series is unoriginal to the point of being cliche: In the far future, what’s left of a post-apocalyptic United States is ruled by a tyrannical central government (the “Capitol”) that oppresses and exploits twelve subordinate districts. Every year, each of the districts must send two teenagers (a boy and a girl) to participate in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised game show where they fight each other to the death until only one survives. The government uses the Games to entertain the public and divert their attention away from its oppressive nature, while also reminding the districts that any attempt at rebellion is doomed to failure. Main character Katniss Everdeen ends up in the Games after she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, who was chosen in the selection lottery.

The idea of an oppressive regime that uses violent televised game shows or sports to quiesce the population has been done to death in science fiction. Running Man, Death Race 2000, and Rollerball are just a few of the better-known examples. Collins’ treatment of the concept doesn’t add much to these earlier works. In addition, there are lots of plot holes and implausibilities in the way the fictional world is developed, which I won’t describe in detail in deference to those who worry about “spoilers.”

As a commentator on the portrayal of federalism in science fiction, I should note that one of the few original features of the story is the use of asymmetrical federalism in an SF setting. But Collins’ use of the concept isn’t especially interesting or insightful.

What Hunger Games lacks in world-building it makes up for in outstanding characterization. Katniss is a fascinating character and Collins is the rare SF writer who knows how to make good use of first-person narration. Several of the other characters are also well-done. In addition, Collins does a great job with the details of the Hunger Games themselves; the parts of the story set in the “arena” are particularly riveting. Despite my critique of the world-building aspect, I still found the books to be mesmerizing and read all three in a short period of time.

Hopefully, the movie will showcase the strengths of the series, while minimizing the weaknesses.