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Review: The Aptly Named Hunger Games Shows a Grim Food Future

Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.

Murray Close / Lionsgate

We are nearing the end of the age of the Hunger Games and the future seems rather grim. The Hunger Games films and books have defined this generation of drip drab Twitter addicts, bleeding through their lives in short form, these Instagram selfie portraitists, these Snap Chatterers called Youth.

We are nearing the end of the age of the Hunger Games and the future seems rather grim.Not so when I was young. I am Generation Potter. Though already a young man during the most hysterical years of the Harry Potter franchise, nevertheless I was enamored with the young wizard, his hot friend with a name I couldn’t pronounce and at the beginning, at least, I didn’t fully hate the whiny twerp Ron.

Having read Roald Dahl’s disturbing memoir of boarding school, Boy, it was a tonic to envision Hogwarts, a stately castle-like institution with windy halls and wainscoting. And the center of Hogwarts wasn’t the Quidditch pitch or the wizard frats (the dick bros from Alpha Theta Slytherin, those hot girls from Gryffindor), but the massive magical cafeteria, the Great Hall. School cafeteria food had never looked so classic and appetizing, long tables laden with crown roasts and turkeys, or cutesy hard boiled eggs in golden holders. Sometimes it was just fucking covered with a dentist’s nightmare of candy.

It was, in a word, magical. For ten years starting in 2001, alongside truly horrible news in the outside world, we could all at least escape for a lunch period, with our owls and wands, to Hogwarts.

But now what?

***

Things are much more bleak in The Hunger Games. The films play in the same Manichean pool as the Potter series. Good is pitted against bad. But whereas in the Potterian universe the germane distinction was between those imbued with magic and those not, the Muggles, in The Hunger Games, it’s the rich against the poor, the urban against the rural, the sated against the starving.

The seat of government is called Panem. As in panem et circenses, the twin tools to keep a downtrodden populace pacified.The plot, as we all well know, is a perfect mash up of Edward Gibbon’s the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and that Japanese flick Battle Royale. En bref, there are thirteen districts that must supply the capital, seat of the government called Panem, with onerous tributes. These take the form of goods and services and in young men and women who must compete in the Hunger Games. Panem is a tyranny and the tyrant is Cornelius Snow and the evil government’s name Latin for bread (and also a great Os Mutantes song). As in panem et circenses, the twin tools to keep a downtrodden populace pacified. Subtlety doesn’t play, I guess, in Peoria.

Let us not forget before we delve into the bleakness of the first part of the recently released third film (or the bleakness that this is how we now speak of films, money-minting franchises of dubious merit but great earning power) that the original film opened with scenes of idyllic chasse as a then unknown young actor, Jennifer Lawrence, hunts a doe. Then a living mannequin named Gale showed up and the beauty of his face, no less than the warm tenor of his voice, scared the wits out of the doe, thus saving its life. Out of the many tech-heavy dystopian fantasies there are, I’ve always appreciated that The Hunger Games makes the point that though humans have bespoiled each other they have thus far spared the earth. Katniss is, like Diana, a hunter and her district, 12, is still a Thoreauvian thicket.

Also, let us remember that Peeta too, her stupid stupid-head friend, is a baker and when we first see the little whiny faced weasel he’s got an apron on, feeding bread to hogs. I’ve always hated Peeta and can’t believe my hatred isn’t universal. He’s the worst thing to happen to baking since sliced bread.

Since large parts of the earlier Hunger Games were set in the capital, there was more food, obviously. As the seat of power is to the districts as Rome was to its provinces, the first two films were more feastly. In the arc of revolution, this was the seduction phase of Katniss. But the main body of this most recent film takes place outside the capital, where food security remains an issue. The revolution being fomented takes place in the subterranean barracks in District 13, hitherto the military wing of the Panem. In this way, whatever revolution occurs in the conclusion of the film, I would caution against calling anything but a coup. One needs only to look at the Arab Spring, and to Egypt in particular, to see how agents of the deep state can change a regime but not the underlying power structure.

Hunger Games Cafeteria

Lionsgate

Nevertheless, they seem to be good folks down there if not a little regimented. But what do you expect? From a culinary standpoint, the Great Hall of Hogwarts’ is replaced by a strictly utilitarian unlovely cafeteria. It’s all concrete and stainless steel. The food, when one glimpses it, is fried and beige. No magic here nor fanciful preparation. But it is, actually, pretty accurate to contemporary institutional cooking. Fried chicken cutlets and french fried potatoes, that’s what we’ll all be eating in the dystopian future which, by the way, has already graced the school cafeterias of America today. [Thank you, new spending bill!] It seems Panem and a congress sucked off by special interests share a few things already.

I’m sure there’s a brisk trade in moonshine down there and I wish we saw it.While I understand some of the strictures of District 13, given the logistical difficulties of sustaining an entire population underground with little access to agriculture, nevertheless the prohibitions seem unduly ascetic. As Ms. Effy Trinket notes, there is neither coffee — which is easy, actually, to store. Nor whiskey, as that guy Haymitch from True Detective mourns. If there are potatoes, however, there should be enough to make some hooch. I’m sure there’s a brisk trade in moonshine down there and I wish we saw it. In fact, I kind of wish Hunger Games was more like Starred Up and pursued the day-to-day implications of living within the prison of a repressive society.

Shortly after seeing The Hunger Games I watched for the first time Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ha’s brilliant 2013 sci-fi flick in which the earth is frozen and mankind doomed to travel in never-ceasing train. The theme there too is revolution though it being on a train, somewhat more contained than the Mockingjay’s. Nevertheless, Joon-Ha brilliantly, hilariously and crushingly explores how how we live affects how we eat. Nobility, those in the front carriages of the train, eat fresh sushi (twice a year.) The conductor, Wilfred, dines on steak. The revolting masses are consigned to protein bars made of bugs. [Ironically, a protein source just voted one of the top 100 innovations of 2014 by Popular Science.]

I get that in The Hunger Games, there’s a lot going on. We can’t just watch Katniss nosh all day. Girl’s got a revolution to foment. But still, I wish food was given more its due. After hours and hours of film, I’m still left feeling, well, hungry.

RATING: Two out of five stars.

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