Something was missing from the recent novel-turned-film, The Hunger Games. Training montage? Check. Close, heartfelt shots of the protagonist? Check. Bow and arrows? Check. Hunger? Conspicuously absent.
Near-constant starvation, one of the defining struggles for survival in the novel, was only peripheral in the film. Apart from a few cutaway scenes depicting the main character, Katniss, as distraught, hungry, and receiving a discarded loaf of bread, the film doesn’t convey physical hunger. To be sure, the written medium allows for the expression of inner aches that, were they stated outright in a film, would be silly. However, the film does metaphorically what the book does literally: it conveys a more philosophical depiction of hunger, asking us and our society, What do we hunger for?
Three enduring narratives converge in the novel and film which, like the mythological nods in the Harry Potter series, elevate the story above teen drivel. The movie reveals and critiques cravings that pervade our society. Teens surviving in a strange place at the cost of each other hails back to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, though with the reality-TV flavoring of Survivor. The dystopian evolution of a society oppressed by its totalitarian government recalls George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The spectacle of death and suffering carries forward Gladiator with a twist of American Idol. (Even visually, as Katniss shoots an arrow toward the Capitol members and faux curtsies and Maximus hurls a sword from the arena floor toward the Roman elite and bellows, “Are you entertained?”) Teenagers live in a world of competition, for friends, grades, college admissions. Our government works toward omniscience. Our media idolizes dramatic spectacle and tragedy.
The Hunger Games has appeal beyond its intended audience, in part, because we are half-aware that our society hungers for things that are not completely right, or good. The film amplifies these urges in a way that the book doesn’t quite achieve. Where it fails to effectively convey literal hunger, it makes vivid the devolved desires of our culture, doing what good art does: waking us to realities that, like wallpaper, become unrecognized by virtue of familiarity. In this case, the walls may be a bit blood-splattered.