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The game design of the Hunger Games

Calling the design of the Hunger Games terrible is kind of missing the point, right? There’s no fairness intended, no logic, no rules. The “gamemakers” are industrial-scale butchers, striking a balance between mass execution and mass execution that’s fun to watch. They’re games only in the bread-and-circuses sense: distractions. Bloody spectacle. (The series’ ravaged, enslaved nation is called, in a Kojima-esque flourish, Panem.)

Author Suzanne Collins famously says she came up with the idea for The Hunger Games books while flipping between reality TV and Iraq War coverage. That might be embellishment, but it’s also a cogent appraisal of the series as a whole. The films, especially since director Francis Lawrence hopped onboard with Catching Fire, have endlessly debated the packaging of heroine Katniss Everdeen as (depending on who’s doing the spinning) a propaganda figurehead or a symbol of dissident rot. The Hunger Games is frequently accused of stealing its core conceit from the cult Japanese film Battle Royale, but that film spent little time on the society that begat the whole children-murdering-each-other tradition. The Hunger Games, conversely, is more fascinated with the culture around the games than the games themselves.

The focus on the complicated interplay between media, government, and society in Catching Fire and Mockingjay parallels other contemporary fantasy narratives: A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin’s fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, downshifted to dig into the utter apathy of the peasantry for the violent, meaningless squabbles of the aristocracy, and the film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince luxuriates in the looming twilight of its characters’ adolescence, thick with dread down to its rusted ochre color palette.

THG is more fascinated with the culture around the games than the games themselves

The Hunger Games movies have never been a place for balls-out action. The first film did its damndest to cut and shake the camera its way around the premise of “kids killing kids,” and, while Lawrence brought a steadier hand, an eye for symmetrical compositions, and sharp spatial awareness to the subsequent three films, they remained curiously bereft of the expected human-on-human violence. Mostly, you’ll be watching people run from bees, lightning, mud, mutated dogs, mutated humans, monkeys (possibly mutated?), smoke, gunships, disintegrating floors, and fire, to name a few.

However, this reflects a surprisingly consistent belief lying below the films’ big-budget exteriors: human life is sacred, and taking life fucks you up forever. The films don’t revel in violence; they don’t make it appealing to watch. The Kurosawa-esque jets of blood that punctuate Battle Royale act as outsize expressions of emotion; these kids literally wear their hearts on their sleeves.

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The Hunger Games has larger concerns; the violence is done by the state above all else. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss as a raw nerve, a strong-willed girl nonetheless being ground under the heel of something massive and uncaring; when she suffers a panic attack brought on by PTSD or bursts into uncontrollable sobs, it’s painful to witness.

In the final film, Katniss swears off fighting entirely, saying that rebels and loyalists alike are being cajoled into violence by the Capitol. Their fight isn’t with each other, but with their oppressors. Of course it turns out that it’s not just the state that’s willing to beat its opponents into submission; French Royalist Jacques Mallet du Pan’s “the Revolution devours its children” has perhaps never been so bluntly rendered.

Human life is sacred, and taking life fucks you up forever

But rather than risking cheap Bioshock Infinite-style moral equivocation between the oppressed and their oppressors, Mockingjay Part Two wisely gives this some nuance. It’s not that the revolution itself is corrupt or made lesser by this turn of events. It was merely co-opted by an opportunist.

Mockingjay as a whole is an impressively funereal affair, leaching nearly all color out of the proceedings, both literally and figuratively; save for Jena Malone’s sardonic Johanna Mason, whose glorious roast of Katniss throws darts at her martyr complex and “tacky romance drama.” The climax of Part 1 is a legitimately tense Baby’s First Zero Dark Thirty set piece, only dulled by the fact that nothing really happens after all, and Part 2 features at least three of those scenes, including a painfully protracted sewer crawl that finally explodes in a whiplash bloodbath.

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Anything other than grim, though, would betray the careful work done to this point. The resolution of the plot proper is rushed; with the amount of time allotted to the tedium of war perhaps slightly more attention could have been given to the thematically juicy denouement, and the near-absence of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Machiavellian, inscrutable Plutarch Heavensbee (and I’m not just talking about his name) severely weakens what is there.

But Katniss herself doesn’t get a happy ending. The film is committed to the rendering of her trauma to the exclusion of everything else. There’s no schmaltzy Harry-putting-his-kids-on-the-Hogwarts-Express epilogue. Superficially, the final scene of Mockingjay Part Two seems to hew close to that formula: we see Katniss many years later in a pastoral domestic tableau. But the war’s not over. In the book she describes the land she and her family live on as “a graveyard.” She’s there every time she closes her eyes. She’s there when she looks at her lover, when she goes hunting, when she falls asleep. All she can do is try to live for all those who didn’t; all she can do is push through the trauma for another day and try to make it all mean something.