Recently I wrote a post on the book The Hunger Games, and in particular the way in which the motif of ‘grain’ as a strategy of control and ‘bread’ as a tactic of subversion recalls the use of grain by Rome and use of bread by the Christian community within that world of ‘bread and circuses.’ In Panem, the Capitol controls the distribution of grain to the 12 Districts as both carrot and stick; and the Districts each make their own forms of bread, in distinctive shapes that reflect their primary employment and with regionally-available additional ingredients, so carrying their own identity in a way the Capitol cannot crush. Moreover, bread is used as gift, a way of sharing meagre resources to ensure that the Capitol does not crush someone else: it is the ultimate symbol of solidarity, of refusing to put oneself before another.
In the film version, this motif (along with most of what makes the book interesting and disturbing) is largely lost. Bread combines the lives of the two boys who are in love with Katniss – without her being aware in either case – when, near the start of the film, Gale offers Katniss a small loaf sold to him by Peeta’s father, the baker, which she breaks in two and shares with him. But the act is easily overlooked, in a scene which struggles to convey a gesture of unconditional love being returned with a gesture of conditional friendship. The significant moment when Peeta provided Katniss with bread recurs in flashback several times; but its story-telling power as testimony to the depth and length of his love is almost entirely negated by setting it in the very recent past rather than some years before, not long after her father’s death, when Katniss, her mother and sister were close to starving.
There is a moment in the film where grain – used by the Capitol as a strategy of control – is directly appropriated as a tactic of subversion; a moment we do not see in the book, told as it is from Katniss’ perspective, trapped in the Games arena. When she shows solidarity with another District, honouring Rue’s life and death by placing flowers around her body and signing respect to the girl’s community forced to watch on a big screen, a riot ensues in District 11 in which the trappings of the Capitol are targeted and grain silos are opened with the grain, pouring out, becoming a means of obstructing the ‘peacekeepers’ and even a weapon to crush and drown them.
Whereas the book is narrated by Katniss, the film is mostly presented from the perspective of the Capitol. This has the effect of turning the story on its head. Rather than side with the oppressed people of the outer Districts, we are encouraged to identify ourselves with the privileged, self-indulgent, but morally complex (as opposed to one-dimensional villains) population of the Capitol. Indeed, they are a hyper-real vision of our own culture; and so such identification is closer to the truth, however disturbing that truth may be. Such a directorial decision may itself be seen as a tactic of subversion intended to undermine bread and circuses as a strategy of control. If so, it is a gamble...