Lafayette, I have returned! And so has the Mad Hatter Award, special clueless reviewer edition. Curious about a tag line on a Salon.com review of the film version of The Hunger Games, I discovered a bizarre review by Andrew O’Hehir. O’Hehir would, in taking this assignment, fall into the category of Reviewers Who are Forced to Watch Stuff They Know Already that They Will Hate and Therefore Pay No Attention to the Plot and Then Complain About the Plot division. Here’s the key quote:
“In Panem, “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins’ nightmarish future version of America, it’s as if the first season of “Survivor” or “American Idol” is on the air year after year, with real killings, no competition and ratings that never go down.
It’s an interesting scenario, I suppose, but how did this happen? Nothing in Collins’ books, or in director Gary Ross’ simultaneously chaotic and desultory film adaptation, even tries to explain that (or seems aware of it as a narrative problem). Somewhere amid the civil war and widespread destruction and rise of a totalitarian state that forms the scanty back story of “The Hunger Games,” the collective knowingness and jadedness and pseudo-sophistication of the Information Revolution society has evaporated. Or at least it has among the subject populations, in the outlying districts annually compelled to supply young combatants to the Hunger Games. Where Collins’ heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, in the movie) grows up, in the Appalachian coal-mining zone called District 12, willowy women in print dresses with flyaway hair live in tumbledown shacks, looking for all the world as if they just stepped out of a Dorothea Lange photo essay from 1937. (Have blue jeans for women and indoor plumbing been abolished, along with consumer society, corporate capitalism and postmodernity in general?)”
Of course, in the books by Suzanne Collins and therefore in the fairly faithful film, it is completely clear why the society is structured the way it is and why they have the games. It is not non-existent or “scanty.” It is, in fact, the point of the whole story. After losing a rebellion against the ruling government in a post-apocalypse future, the districts are kept in a state of abject poverty and non-modern technology ghettos by military force, starvation, imprisonment, random killings and other methods to control them and keep them from rebelling again, while providing resources to the wealthy of the Capitol. The most stunning of those methods is to take some of their children away each year, as if to a concentration camp, except the technologically advanced Capitol gets to then watch the children of the people they keep in the mud kill each other and make the people watch it too. This is a propaganda and totalitarian terror technique, unfortunately, that numerous societies have used before in history, including modern history. While Collins’ version of it is somewhat simplistic in execution for the needs of the story, it is neither absent nor illogical.
What is absent, which seems to be what O’Hehir is insisting is vitally important, is a lengthy historical lesson of what happened between our current day and the society in the novel — the exact apocalyptic events that would allow a Capital to develop and which have little to do with the story at all, much less warrant an intrusion in a two hour film. The fact that the people in the society don’t necessarily know exactly what happened in that past, that the ruling Capital would repress any accurate information about such a past even if facts are known and that things like blue jeans or spats do in fact often disappear from the landscape over decades seems not to have been clear to him.
Mr. O’Hehir apparently also has never heard of current cities like Rio or Mumbai, where teeming shanty slums with no running water, electricity or doors really and built on landfills of garbage live side by side with glorious high-rises decorated in gold gilt. He is apparently unfamiliar with the nature of the gladiator games in the Roman Empire, on which Collins based much of her game ideas. Nor does he seem aware of more current events in some places like people’s heads being used as soccer balls while stadium audiences are forced to watch and cheer. And so he’s terribly confused that the people in District 12 in the story, who are kept imprisoned by an electric fence, don’t have video games in their homes. He wants a detailed explanation of why they are kept in Third World poverty beyond the fact that it’s a totalitarian society and there are men with guns, spy drones and genetically engineered monsters to enforce it and if he doesn’t get one, then the world of the story is “stupid” and of no relevance to the world we inhabit.
Or what is more likely is that he found the prospect of the movie tedious and decided to dismiss it as a poorly put together war movie for teenage girls. Either way, O’Hehir gets a well and fairly earned Mad Hatter Award. It will be difficult for other critics to top that sort of nattering.