Translating the dystopian world of The Hunger Games…into 1930s scenery?

In my review of The Hunger Games movie, I noted that I was not terribly impressed by the futuristic designs in the movie. At The Atlantic, three design critics make similar arguments and note that much of the scenery and design is not from the future but rather from the 1930s. Here are a few of their thoughts:

The props, sets, and costumes are a giant mash-up of visual cues taken from eras when the socioeconomic disparity between classes was so extreme as to be dangerous. The look is sort of cherry picked from influences ranging from the French Revolution to the Third Reich to Alexander McQueen. A more unified or coherent vision, one that took the influences and used them to create something unique, might have served the story better…

The opening scenes in District 12 are atmospheric and period precise. The bleached-out blue palette, the wooden shacks, the muddy roads—you know you are in the 1930s of the Farm Services Administration photographers. There were a couple of moments, like the line of cabins going down into the hollow, or the two scrawny kids looking out of a hole in the wall, that I could almost swear were direct imitations of a photograph. I found out after I saw the movie that those scenes were filmed in Henry River, North Carolina, an abandoned mill town from the 1920s. In District 12, it is coal. In North Carolina, it was yarn…

The overall look of the Capitol was 1930s neoclassicism, an architectural style used by the Nazis and based on Roman precedents. Fascist architecture seems too easy and obvious an equivalence for Panem’s totalitarian regime. I thought Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins was trying to make a trenchant point about what we all like to watch now. Making the Capitol a contemporary skyscraper city, like a forest of Far East towers, would have made a much more pointed contrast with the Appalachian opening. What about the top of Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, with its mile-high infinity pool, as the setting for Katniss and Peeta’s pre-Games talk? How could you get more decadent than that?…

Maybe oppressive architecture in movies has to be Fascist, in the same way that aliens need to be either robotic, humanoid, or insect-like—otherwise we don’t immediately recognize and fear what we’re seeing. The tributes’ apartment was like an outdated hotel room that was trying too hard to be hip but not quite succeeding; the green chairs were ridiculous in the same way as Effie’s shoes, hats, and makeup…

On the whole, these critics argue that the movie seems to lean on the past a lot rather than casting a new vision for the future. I understand the difficulties of doing this; futuristic settings can be too jarring or cheesy (see the city scenes in Star Wars Episodes I-III). Maybe moviegoers are more invested in the movie if there are scenes they can recognize. For example, the Nazi narrative is clear to many so invoking these ideas in the Capitol is an easy way to make a link between Nazism and the totalitarianism that made the Hunger Games possible in the first place. The movie taps into familiar cultural narratives such as the Depression or Nazism, pointing to the future while also drawing on the past.

Perhaps this comes down to an argument about whether movie makers should always try to hit a home run with design and setting or play it safe. I think The Hunger Games played it safe on this end. Rather than risk ridicule or have to develop a whole new world, they borrowed heavily from known images. Perhaps this could even drive home the possibly commentary even further that we aren’t as far away from this sort of world as we might think. In other words, the future (or the present) might look a lot similar to the pas.t But I think this was a missed opportunity: considering the budget and popularity of the books, the movie could have presented a grand vision of the future that truly captured the attention of viewers and also pushed design and popular imagery of the future further.

2 thoughts on “Translating the dystopian world of The Hunger Games…into 1930s scenery?

  1. “playing it safe” was probably a good idea. When I go on the movie’s website, I see amazingly stupid complaints. “What does the salute mean?”. “Why do they have such funny names?” “Why do they wear such crazy clothes?” If the movie put in futuristic architecture on top of the slightly alien salute, names, and costumes, they’d really be confused.

    In the books you’re more aware of the midieval culture of District 12. You go to the “apothecary”, not a doctor, to get an injury treated. Famines have occurred, and as a result even townsdwellers raise animals as a precaution, and they eat animals we would consider taboo — squirrels, wild dogs, horses. Punishments for crime take the form of stocks, whippings, and public hangings. The movies go in far less detail about this.

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  2. Pingback: Using Chicago skyscrapers as inspirations for spaceships | Legally Sociable

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