While reading the Hunger Games trilogy, I relished Suzanne Collins loving descriptions of food, especially given they were accompanied by a wider critique of the politics of hunger. As I read, I shook my head in dismay along with Katniss at the capitol’s fondness for purging tonic and obeisance to the body beautiful. More recently, I was dismayed to find this beloved series has been purged of its more political components on its journey to the big screen, not only via the heightened focus on romance, but also via the purging of the political critique of hunger.
Katniss Everdeen, our intrepid heroine, comes from the food impoverished District 12, where starving to death is a pressing, daily concern. Food shortages serve as a driving part of the narrative, and the astute Katniss realizes the capitol deliberately uses food as a weapon to manipulate the populace, that food is “just another tool to cause misery…A way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on Supper.”
But food is more than a weapon in the book – the procuring and sharing of it is an act not only of survival, but of love. The book’s heroic characters – Katniss, Gale, Peeta – all provide food for others while the villains – the Capitol, the Career tributes – hoard and waste food. In the book, the perennially hungry Katniss (how refreshing to see a female character that appreciates food!) is astonished by the lavish meals at the Capitol, noting “I’ve never had food like this.” When presented with delectable rich soup and irresistible desserts she shares “probably the best thing I can do between now and the Games is put on a few pounds” (again, how refreshing, a female that wants to GAIN weight!) Here, Katniss is thinking strategy – she wants to nourish herself for the games. She also realizes, though, the work required to put on such a meal, noting she would have had to hunt and gather for days to even approximate such a sumptuous meal. In a political analysis typical of her character, she muses
“What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?”
Alas, Hollywood, like the citizens of the Capitol, seems more interested in decorating bodies and mass-producing “entertainment” than in bringing the more political messages of Collins book to life. While the film does not completely jettison the book’s focus on hunger, it is by no means a driving part of the narrative – food is relegated to a side table, so to speak, with a loaf of bread captured on screen here, a fancy dessert propped before Katniss there. But, Katniss is not driven by the threat of starvation like she is in the books, nor is Panem society excoriated for its 99%-1% divide.
While Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant in the role, and while the visual feel of the film is mesmerizing, I left the theatre feeling hungry, feeling a bit like it was one of those “hollow days” described by Katniss in the book, where her empty belly echoes the gaping maw of injustice in the society in which she struggles to survive. “I’ve lost a lot of weight in the arena, I need some extra calories,” she noted at this point in the book. The film, like Katniss’ in the games, is emaciated, lacking the weight of the densely caloric book with its meaty political analysis.
If only the filmmakers had taken Katniss’ comment in the book to heart, “I mean, it’s the Hunger Games, right?” Here, she is strategizing with Rue regarding taking action against the Career Tributes, and explaining that taking out their food supply is key. Katniss recognizes that forcing the privileged Career Tributes to be hungry, as she has been most of her life, could turn the tide of the games. If only viewers would be forced to be hungry in the same way – to have the appetizing visuals removed, the romance made less palatable, the sweet, fast-food narrative rendered harder to chew, maybe we too could experience some game-changing hunger. If only the film had not lost the more weighty dealings with food, and given us a richer, more politicized meal…