The fourth and final installment of the Hunger Games film series hits theaters this week and as I often do when a series is concluding, I'm taking a look back at where it all started. The series opened in 2012 with Pleasantville/Seabiscuit director Gary Ross's explosive take on the young adult novel series, to both popular and critical acclaim. At the time, I knew of Suzanne Collins' books only in passing and from the limp internet outrage over their similarity to the Japanese cult classic Battle Royale. I only checked out the first film after seeing overwhelmingly positive reviews, and am very glad I did; in spite of fumbles in the third installment, this is the best American film serial since Star Wars.
|District 12: Coal Town|
The Hunger Games is set in Panem (a map in the second film shows it to be a slightly distorted United States), a nation divided into thirteen districts. Each district supplies The Capitol and its tyrannical despot President Snow (Donald Sutherland) with resources unique to its region; coal, wood, fish, etc. Each year, a male and a female child from each district is chosen at random as a Tribute to fight to the death in a tournament, some to bring glory to The Capitol, some out of fear or hope, some, like our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, in the role that made her an international star), out of selflessness, as she volunteers in place of her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields).
|Katniss reassuring Prim|
This isn't a world that would really function if held up to scientific scrutiny, but that's a boring and terrible way to watch movies anyway. It's a world of allegory and subtext, some (the many Ancient Rome name drops) delightfully blunt. It's a story of both systemic and personal corruption, and of embracing lies for a just cause. No one gets out of this clean. As Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy, a one-time champion now serving as mentor to Katniss and male Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), says in the second film, "There are survivors. There's no winners." Of course, even in war there's time for love to bloom, as we see in the "who will she choose?" love triangle that develops between Katniss, Peeta, and her longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
|Haymitch throws down some disdain|
|Stanley Tucci's incredible commentator, Caesar Flickerman|
Color is used wonderfully in the film both to establish characters and to create solid shot compositions. Clothing, hair, and eyes often match the colors of bold objects within the frame, giving the entire scene an organic feel; the set exists as an extension of the character. Costume designer Judianna Makovsky does a wonderful job here, with many memorably weird looks that call to mind the bizarre aesthetic of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Other subtler moments include the color choice of the Everdeen family cat, a dirty, feral, but nonetheless loved scavenger with black fur with a white patch. We first meet him as the pale-skinned Katniss, dressed all in black, prepares to hunt. Both the situation and look of Katniss and the cat draw immediate connections between the two characters. The cat is seen as a gross but lovable pet by the Everdeen family and, later, The Capitol will come to see Katniss herself the same way. Unfortunately, he's recast as an orange tabby in the still strong but less visually striking sequel.
|Two pieces of Capitol property|
|Effie (Elizabeth Banks) feebly presides over a team meeting|
|A faded Katniss contrasts with a regal set|
|And yet, this horrifying man still manages to be lovably charismatic|
Effie Trinket, an extravagant fashionista charged with keeping Katniss and Peeta presentable, is another of the film's best supporting characters. Her first appearance is one of the most visually striking in the film, as she enters the white and gray desolation of District 12 in a garish purple suit and white face paint. She is the absolute contrast to Katniss; while Katniss struggles to survive from day to day and is willing to give her life for those she loves, Effie is utterly alone, oblivious, and obsessed with triviality. In a lesser film, she would be a boogeyman to boo and hiss, but the film smartly develops her as a sympathetic figure who will, over the course of this film and the next, fully embrace Katniss and begin to learn what it means to be human. This is a series that becomes progressively more and more about political revolution, but Effie's transformation symbolizes Katniss's greatest victory.
|Effie enters the scene as a Clown of Death before finding salvation|
|The fashion morgue|
|Both Snow's camera presence and white roses dwarf Crane's smaller frame and red flowers|
|Rue becomes an unknowing martyr of revolution|
|Katniss bathed in red|