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Pawn Takes King: The Hunger Games and Death Entertainment

  The premise of staging actual deaths for sport or spectacle goes back to the times of Ancient Rome, and the fact that thousands of people, be they gladiators or Christians thrown to the lions, met their demise in that fashion has proved quite a potent idea for creators of entertainment rather less fatal. Of course, there have been films where the Roman setting was adopted, from the adaptation of Androcles and the Lion to Ridley Scott's multi-Oscar-winning Gladiator, with many an Italian sword and sandal effort in between, but it was The Hunger Games series in the twenty-first century that really captured the imagination of worldwide audiences for its depiction of a science fiction dystopia. This had Jennifer Lawrence portraying the rebellious Katniss Everdeen who was drafted in to take part in the titular games, a nationwide televised event, a fight to the death for the amusement of the masses, or more likely the ruling classes.

But The Hunger Games didn't spring fully formed from the imagination of Suzanne Collins, the writer who had penned the trilogy of young adult novels that had been enough of a success to be ripe for adaption to blockbuster legend. If you went back to the nineteen-thirties, Leslie Banks hunted down Joel McCrea and Fay Wray for sport in The Most Dangerous Game, a concept that inspired a number of movies to this day, though Banks' sadistic Count Zaroff didn't think to film his efforts as a record of his exploits. We had to move forward to 1965 when Elio Petri translated Robert Sheckley's story The Seventh Victim to the screen, renamed as The 10th Victim, to really see where the subgenre was going to be headed, with its heavy dose of social satire, stylish arrangements, and violence presented as a diversion for both the public in the story and the audiences watching the actual film. You could tell yourself you were watching for the themes and to engage with the discussion it brought up, but a lot of the time it was the visceral thrill of the transgressive that was the appeal.

In The 10th Victim, or La Decima Vittima as it was originally called in Italian, any violence in this future society has been banished to The Hunt, a state-sponsored but actually commercially fuelled escapade whose rules are delivered to us in the first couple of minutes as we watch Ursula Andress play the victim chased around New York by her potential assassin. Whoever kills who, a hefty financial reward will be given to the victor, and as their names are on the register of hunters the further their total is marked up, the more money they can acquire, with Andress now onto her prospective tenth victim (Marcello Mastroianni, now onto his seventh) after she despatches her would be killer with two guns concealed in her spangly brassiere while in an art gallery. From that you can tell Petri was as much interested in the surface sheen as he was in the message he was bringing, and it's true you can watch his film purely for its ice cool visuals, though as a Communist his observations of a murder staged for a television advertisement for tea contained a certain snarky dig at commercialism and where it would eventually end up.

Ten years later, and if you were not swayed by its cheery rip-off Death Race 2000 the only game in town as far as satisfying the masses went was Rollerball, which was seeing a star emerging in Jonathan E. He was played by James Caan, and while in The 10th Victim the lure of romance was something Marcello was resisting, as if the film was a commentary on marriage rather than the corruption of modern societies, the Jonathan we meet is pining for his lost love, a wife who isn't dead but has been banished from his life by the corporations which run his existence as well as running the Rollerball matches. To explain, as the posters had it: "In the not too distant future, wars will no longer exist. But there will be Rollerball." Basically that meant precisely what you thought it did, a violent sport had been invented by 2018 when this took place that had taken over from armed conflict between nations, and that was down to there being corporations running the show - the entire show, from politics to work to leisure to everything you can think of, they even regulate information so the public don't find out too much.

Which was essentially all the fears of post-Watergate America rolled up into a future where you couldn't trust authority anymore, perhaps not a novel idea nowadays but very au courant back in 1975, and films such as this were the reason such ways of thinking became popularised. Whether you want to thank them for that is another matter, but the main theme here was how the big businesses would homogenise culture and community to make sure, as big boss of them John Houseman helpfully described, that no one person stood out from the ranks, so nobody would be there for the hoi polloi to gather behind and support. Not so good when the sport they have created has brought about a real hero when Jonathan is so good, no matter how often they change the rules, that he can win games by himself without the assistance of his teammates, and that is a real problem leaving the powers that be one option: force him to retire. One major issue with that, the dim but getting smarter Jonathan doesn't want to do so.

For most at the time this was initially released, certainly among the young audience who really wanted to see a future match of extreme violence, it was those action sequences that were the main draw, and director Norman Jewison orchestrated them to be sickening in their ferocity, dismayed when they were regarded as the highlights. As a marked contrast between those and what happens in between, with Jonathan pining away, meeting Sir Ralph Richardson's supercomputer (naturally, it malfunctions when faced with the people's champion), going to parties where the don't care attitude sees the guests blow up trees with a laser gun and so on, the morose qualities of the musings over the global themes were not half as exciting as watching the matches. They were a mixture of various sports from hockey to American football to speedway to roller derby, all mashed up and letting the viewer work out how they were played, but what was most important was that participants ran the risk of getting killed, and that was pure, pacifying amusement for the masses who would attend or watch on their wall-mounted televisions, getting their frustrations out of their systems and presumably not troubling the company men as a result.

For the next decade, 1987's The Running Man was the highest profile dystopian entertainment yarn, with Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in a very loose adaptation of one of the novels Stephen King had published as Richard Bachman. The book had quite some influence on Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, but the movie was about as eighties garish as it was possible to get, taking the gaudiness of a game show and applying it to the action genre. Schwarzenegger became a people's champion in a manner that Mastroianni had not in his effort, suggesting that what this type of science fiction needed was a focus of audience identification as viewers as well as the fictional audience, call it a hark back to Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus where Kirk Douglas blazed a trail for all usurpers of totalitarian societies in works to follow, especially the more fantastical. But what was more necessary was perhaps a focus for the evil, someone to boo and hiss, and while Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale in 2000 featured Beat Takeshi as the company man, the schoolteacher who brings his students to the slaughter, he wasn't when it came down to it quite as impressive a figurehead of the regime as you might have hoped, though Collins evidently noted the value of making us care more when there were youngsters involved.

So what she did was give us, and her nightmare future, President Snow, as played by Donald Sutherland, a silky smooth villain which took the actor's way with the sinister and manipulative, not always capitalised upon, and offered those characteristics a genuine showcase. As with Battle Royale, the nation is obsessed and pacified by a televised contest, a fight to the death where there is a random ballot and those picked venture to a remote area of the country to combat one another until there remains a single victor. Our heroine is Katniss (a soulful Jennifer Lawrence), no more happy about this state of affairs than anyone else in each district, as the ruling classes in Panem's capital city do not have to compete, and she agrees to take the place of her sister, which makes the ultimate fate of both all the more ironic. Once in the Games, she draws on her resources, including her skill with a bow and arrow honed by hunting to supplement the paltry rations, to emerge the victor, as you might expect given there were still two books and three movies to go.

Yes, this was one of those cases where a would-be blockbuster adaptation of a series of books were drawn out when the last entry was divided into a couple of films, and perhaps the most notorious of them when most viewers could not see why the creators (Collins was on board as producer and writer) didn't opt for a shorter and snappier solution of one instalment to round things off. You could argue doing it this way gave the plot more room to breathe, and it assuredly gave the main theme time to do that as we were invited to muse over not just the parameters of the modern hero and whether we could actually have such figures in society now that cynicism reigned, but how close the men and women of action had become to celebrities. Would Spartacus have had his team of public relations in the world of the future, putting his face on websites and lacing the gossip columns with items of trivia? Because the equivalent happens to Katniss the further The Hunger Games plotline progresses, and she hates it, possibly the most accurate summation of being a personality and all the trappings of fame that popular cinema produced in the early twenty-first century.

Another thing that happened as that narrative moved through the books from Catching Fire to Mockingjay was the games to the death were increasingly incorporated into the life outside the arena. The second instalment had seen all the champions gathered to thrash it out to see who was the best, and some found this the best film of the lot, possibly more palatable than watching kids murder one another though a shade less transgressive, but by the time the last two segments arrived, they made no bones about being war stories, and incorporated were ponderings over what that meant for the media who needed personalities to hone in on as Katniss was now the rebel figurehead. We expect, as in Star Wars movies and all their followers, for there to be a grand showdown between Katniss and Snow, yet Collins was not interested in playing by those rules, perhaps the reason Mockingjay Part 2 was the least well received of the entire franchise, although a fatigue had set in with audiences as much as it had with the characters which can't have helped. Another element that broke with convention was showing us what happened after the war was over, and the endeavours to sustain peace - what happens to the heroine of the people now they moved on? This muted conclusion was not adopted by many in the dystopian pastime genre, but it raised a pertinent point. Life goes on even after cruel tyrants are deposed. So what do we watch on television then?
Author: Graeme Clark.


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