By Jeff Jensen
March 28, 2012 at 05:50 PM EDT
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The Hunger Games grossed $34.8 million in the United States last Sunday (en route to a record-setting $152.5 million weekend), and exactly $40 of that total came from my household. My wife and daughter are fans of Suzanne Collins’ novels. My son and I were newbies to the dystopian world of Katniss Everdeen and the cruel Survivor-gone-psycho reality show that was The Hunger Games. I “enjoyed” the story, as much as one can “enjoy” a YA-style riff on Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery whose second best quality was its artfully sustained tone of suffocating hopelessness. (The best quality: Jennifer Lawrence, who made this coldly cynical enterprise not only watchable but also meaningful. I loved the True Grit of this budding counterculture heroine.)

The whole set-up — from the Reaping to the countdown to Battle Royale outside the Cornucopia — was just heartbreakingly scary. They were trapped. Like, buried alive trapped. And I felt their despairing, mind-blowing panic. During the section of the movie set in The Capitol, I kept waiting for Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta, to rebel and pull a Logan’s Run. (I mean this as a very small critique: I think the movie should have given us a scene during all that primping and training and star-making stuff in which one of them boldly quit and suffered the consequences. The movie needed to show the tributes — and the audience — why not playing the game invites a worse fate than playing it.)

But no: Into the arena they all went. The slaughter at the Cornucopia was horrifying. And because the first half of the movie had so effectively established the stakes and cultivated so much dread, this violence didn’t need to be any more graphic than it was. It was exactly, precisely as disturbing as it needed to be. At least for me. And certainly for my son, a Halo-playing wanna-be badass middle schooler who chose to look away from the screen at this moment.

From this point forward, the movie began losing its effectiveness for me. I admired Katniss’ approach to nonparticipation, choosing to commit acts of violence only in self-defense, and never with intent to kill. (I think.) Still, the movie lagged more and more as Katniss tried to avoid conflict. Among the things that bugged me: The field-of-play “villains,” such as they were; those killing machine career tributes were superficial critiques of dehumanizing war culture. (Why the hell did Peeta form an alliance with them? If his intention was to protect Katniss, why the hell didn’t he kill them or maim them or something in their sleep when he had the chance? That boy needed more hardness, a little more Haymitch; he needed to be the admirable warrior to Katniss’ conscientious objector.) The stuff I liked: the ill-fated interlude with Rue, Seneca Crane’s manipulative game management, and Katniss’ final subversion of the game for the win.

Bottom line? The movie made me a fan. My quibbles aside, the movie got me invested in Katniss Everdeen. I hope she can survive her rigged-game world. More, I hope she can change it. I want to see if she can.

After watching the movie, I was presented with an interesting assignment by The Hunger Games cabal here at Entertainment Weekly. They were curious to know — from my perspective as a Hunger Games neophyte — what I made of certain aspects of the world, bits of business that (presumably) were given more explanatory context in the book but were presented more ambiguously in the movie. Not one to resist an opportunity to theorize madly and erroneously, I accepted the assignment.

NEXT: The hand signal, the rose scent, and the mockingjay — my clueless theories

“Did you understand the significance of the hand sign?”

I believe we’re talking about the three-fingered salute that the kids of District 12 gave Katniss and Peeta after they were confirmed as tributes, and that Katniss later gave to the camera following Rue’s death. At first, I thought the gesture was some kind of official salute — a ceremonial act, required by The Powers That Be. But after Katniss defiantly flashed the sign to the camera, and after the viewers in Rue’s home district were inspired to return the gesture and then riot against the Capitol’s security forces, I began to wonder if this was actually the official salute of the resistance movement that once tried and failed to overthrow this country’s totalitarian overlords. Am I wrong?

“Did you understand the significance of the mockingjay pin?”

My interpretation: Katniss took a shine to the pendant because it was beautiful, and because it was a homespun art piece that would remind Katniss of her roots. Maybe mockingjays are the official bird of District 12? Later, when Cinna revealed to her that he’d hidden the pin in her official Hunger Games togs, and Katniss responded with quiet gratitude, I assumed that the rules of the Games forbade tributes from bringing personal objects of any kind into the field of play. Am I wrong?

“Did you understand the significance of the sponsorships?”

I think so. My understanding: That companies and perhaps even private, wealthy individuals had the ability to purchase things on behalf of the tributes they loved most, things that could help them survive the ordeal or advance in the game, like the medicine for Katniss or the soup for Peeta. I loved the implied subplot of Haymitch lobbying the Capitol fat cats for support, as well as the note he sent to Katniss and Peeta with the parachute of soup criticizing their weak smooch. My take was that the movie was attempting to satirize the media — and make the audience implicit in this degrading form of entertainment. (If so, they could have hit this idea harder.) Am I wrong?

“Did you understand the significance of the roses?”

If you mean the dialogue between Caesar Flickerman and Peeta about how everyone in the Capitol smells like roses… Yeah, I was kinda baffled by that one. Capitol culture was depicted as outrageously glam; I took the detail to be another affectation of a shallow society oblivious to (or willfully trying to mask) reminders of their own foul corruption. (I was also reminded of the refrain of the OutKast song “Roses.”) As for why President Snow was often seen snipping roses, I took his gardening to symbolize that he was a really, really bad politico (dictator?) that needs to be pruned from power himself. Right? (To be honest, the politics and history seemed really fuzzy to me — but not in a bad way. In an intriguing way, actually. It left me wanting more, but also convinced me that we’ll be getting more in the movies to come. It was enough for me to get only an elaborate, teasing introduction to this hard, horrible world.)

“Did you notice what was significant about the servants in the Capitol?”

No. What was significant about them?

“What did you make of the dogs at the end?”

I thought the fact that Seneca was able to manipulate reality in the field of play to the point that he could instantly conjure trees, fireballs, and a pack of hellacious hounds was really cool. I also wish the movie had made more of this ability…and I also wish Seneca and his team of engineers had more imagination. Rabid monster mutts? Effective. But so pedestrian. Don’t these gamers actually play videogames?

“Finally, what did you take away from the romance angle, particularly with regard to Katniss’ feelings?”

My interpretation was that while Katniss had developed strong feelings for Peeta, those feelings were also circumstantial. I think her heart belongs to Gale. Also: Liam Hemsworth. Come on. He’s a quality guy — and Katniss ain’t blind. That said, all that kissing and hugging with Peeta in the cave rubbed me wrong. I would have preferred it if the movie played it more like this: Katniss — working the “Romeo and Juliet” spin concocted by Peeta — shrewdly decided to over-exaggerate her very real affection for Peeta for the sake of securing sponsorship support that could help save wounded Peeta’s life. Or was that exactly what Katniss was doing and I read it wrong?

Hunger Games Experts: Looking forward to your corrections and responses. Hunger Games Newbies: What were your confusions/assumptions/theories?

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

Read more:

Who should play Joanna in ‘Catching Fire’?

Who should play Finnick in ‘Catching Fire’?

‘The Hunger Games’: What the movie missed about the book

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