Everybody loves a Gladiator, so much so that many people probably wish the Roman Empire had never ended. Slaves tearing one another apart? Bring out the popcorn! That’s what The Hunger Games is about – oh, and a ‘strong’ female character called Katniss, who may or may not have been named after a new brand of pet food. Apparently there’s more to her character in the books – which I’m looking forward to reading – but here she’s defined by being good with a weapon (a bow and arrow) and brave; the same traits that male heroes have in pretty much every other action film.
A cross between George Orwell and Simon Cowell’s visions of the future, The Hunger Games films (or at least, the two so far released) can seem like a sanitised version of the far bloodier Battle Royale, while being less subversive than they may at first appear. Yes, there’s a dystopia with a 21st-century twist, revolving around the controlling powers of Reality TV, but ultimately one oppressive totalitarian regime can seem pretty much like another.
Katniss might look nonplussed at the sumptuous outfits she’s made to wear, but we’re still encouraged to enjoy them. In Hunger Games: Catching Fire, at one point she’s even trussed up in a wedding dress like a romcom heroine. But wait! It turns into an equally sumptuous black mocking bird outfit, so that’s OK. While riding around the ring in a chariot she also gets to wear a dress made out of fire. Real fire! How strong and yet stylish is that?! No wonder everyone fancies her. Even old men can’t resist randomly presenting her with roses.
When I was a kid I used to watch a cartoon called Jem and the Holograms in which, through the power of holographic technology (whatever happened to that?), a millionaire teenage pop star transformed herself and her outfit by simply twisting one of her earrings. Katniss, aided by Lenny Kravitz as her fashion designer, at times seems to have the same powers. Thankfully, despite the X Factor-style setting, she never gets to sing. (Singing was Jem’s ‘skill’ and upon recently relistening to her hits I discovered it wasn’t a very good one).
In contrast, wannabe heartthrob Peeta – trapped with some other bloke in a Twilight-style love triangle – seems to have very few skills. His main one appears to be standing in front of Katniss when she is trying to shoot someone. He also enjoys offering to lay down his life, but unfortunately doesn’t get the chance to follow this through. Katniss is just too damn capable. She must feel like she’s been thrown to the lions with a member of One Direction.
With a slow build-up, training sequences and battle to kill or be killed on an island filled with peril, it’s pretty much the same set-up as the first film in the series. However, it’s all undeniably exciting stuff, particularly when the games begin. Will Katniss die a horrible death? Probably not – but it’s what she’ll have to do to survive that we want to see. Cruelty is enjoyable when it’s happening to someone else. Gladiators don’t exist anymore, so we go to the cinema instead. And although The Hunger Games isn’t 1984, it does manage to capture the thrill of watching someone being tested to their limits while looking unusually good in a boiler suit remarkably well.