“May the odds be ever in your favor…” What an awful attempt at a catch-phrase…

But there’s nothing awful about the popularity of The Hunger Games—both the book and the movie. In its opening weekend the film raked in $155 million—the biggest opening ever for a non-sequel. Bottom line: The film is good, and well worth seeing. I highly recommend debriefing with your teens afterward.

The story takes place in a future where America is divided into districts ruled by a tyrannical Capitol. Seventy-five years ago the districts rebelled, which resulted in the destruction of the 13th district, and the start of the Hunger Games—a fight-to-the-death competition designed to make sure the populace never gets that urge again.

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Each year one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each district are chosen at random to compete in a huge arena until only person is left standing.

I can only assume one of the things they were rebelling against was the terrible names of the future. Caesar Flickerman? Effie Trinket? Haymitch Abernathy?!

The lead character is Katniss, a strong young girl who’s a crack shot with a bow and arrow, and who volunteers for the Games when her 12-year-old sister’s name is chosen. Her District 12 counterpart is Peeta—a boy who has a crush on Katniss. There’s a third person in the “love triangle”—a hunky fellow hunter named Gale, who is barely set up as a love interest and hardly in the movie at all, so it’s really hard to buy into this Edward/Jacob thing they’re trying to achieve.

Jennifer Lawrence is terrific as Katniss. She’s a perfect mix of smart and strong and vulnerable. Josh Hutcherson is fine as Peeta. He’s more willing to play the “games” of the Games—forming alliances, playing up his long-time love for Katniss, and catering to the crowds screaming for blood. Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson play their characters exactly as I pictured them from the books. Rocker Lenny Kravitz doesn’t have much screen time as the fashion advisor Cinna, but he’s quite good in the role.

Due to time constraints the film had to sacrifice some plot threads from the book, but it still follows the book quite closely—no doubt because author Suzanne Collins had a hand in writing the screenplay. Unfortunately, that means some of the things I disliked about the book were carried over into the film—the ridiculous names, for instance, and some laziness in the writing. Minor spoiler: For instance, rather than think through a not-ridiculous way to help her heroine out of trouble, she just uses a magical MacGuffin—in the form of parachutes with an unbelievably quick-working balm that can heal a severely injured leg overnight. Aside from being silly, it removes any tension and concern I feel for the characters. Once I know the only thing that can really hurt them is death, I simply care less about what happens to them.

The film is not without controversies. Some people are up in arms that the film seems to glorify teenagers killing teenagers. But in fact, the film went out of its way to blur the violence. At the beginning of the Games, there’s an opening violent free-for-all, and director Gary Ross switched to a shaky-cam, made lots of cuts, and even changed the sound to a dull ringing that made it hard to follow. It made the scene both intimate and distant.

Yes, teenagers kill teenagers, but we almost never see the act itself. And the film makes us feel that every death in here is terrible–in other words, this isn’t a Saw movie, where a certain portion of the audience will revel in the deaths and talk about the cool ways people died. The film won’t allow that, and I really liked that about it.

There’s a strong distinction made between those who live in the Capitol and some of the wealthier districts, and those who live in the poorer districts—such as Katniss’ District 12. Some kids from the wealthy District 1 are bred and trained from an early age for the Games. They volunteer to participate when the time comes, and they have a much greater win percentage. Kids from the poorer districts struggle just to have enough food to eat, so there’s no time for luxuries like training. One sinister twist is that kids can get extra rations of food at the cost of having their names added more times to the Games lottery.

Citizens of every district are forced to watch the Games—this comes through much more in the books than the film. But the citizens of the Capitol—with their extravagant lifestyles and utterly ridiculous fashion—LOVE watching the games. It made me think of the Roman Coliseum and how that depraved society loved to watch death. It also reminded me of the old Roman formula for keeping a population appeased: Give them bread and circuses. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the name of the future country is Panem—the Latin word for bread.) Collins is, of course, railing against that, and sees our own society slipping into being comfortable with horror. We’re supposed to feel uncomfortable about watching this. It seems that the author/filmmakers are trying to resensitize a society that has become desensitized to violence.

That’s why you should talk about the implications of the movie.

  • Is it okay to make a movie with violence in order to make a point about violence? Does that help or hurt the case?
  • What would you do if you were in these kids’ situation? Kill? Allow yourself to be killed rather than kill someone? Why?
  • How does this film show humanity’s brokenness and depravity? What are some examples of hope in the film?

Kids in your group have seen this movie and read these books. Don’t dismiss this as a movie simply about “teenagers killing teenagers.” It’s more than that. Engage it.

Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.

Scott Firestone is the editor of Group Magazine and youthministry.com. He’s also a film nut, music lover, and guacamole bacon burger connoisseur.

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