Film Chat: The Hunger Games

— Hannah Lee

“The Hunger Games” opened this weekend to robust ticket sales, taking in a record $155 million in North America, according to The New York Times. The film and the book of the same name is about a dystopian future society, Panem, that arose after North America had been destroyed. Panem is governed autocratically from the Capitol, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. After a failed revolt some 74 years ago, the remaining 12 outlying districts are controlled by starvation rations and a cruel annual selection — the reaping — of one boy and one girl from each district to compete for their life in a televised survival competition called the Hunger Games. Beyond natural selection, they are subjected to man-made disasters — fire, creatures engineered to be more lethal, and artificially altered weather — as well as armed violence from the other contenders, the tributes, until only one survivor remains.

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The movie was thoughtfully done, but fans would notice some omissions and telescoping. The author, Suzanne Collins, was listed as a producer, so it was with her approval. Still, it would be hard to understand everything if one had not read the book. For instance, the first interaction of the protagonists, the two tributes assigned to represent District 12, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, was supposed to be when they were 11 — five years ago — and her family was starving after the death of her father and while her mother was subsumed by grief. A baker’s son, Peeta, intentionally burnt some loaves of bread and he was angrily instructed to throw them out to the pigs. He threw them to Katniss, whom he knew was hiding by the pen. The flashback was quick (as were all of them) and the viewer would not know the debt that Katniss felt she owed to Peeta, for giving her hope, especially since she then spied the first dandelion of the season and she realized she can forage for her family, and later hunt for them. A nice added touch in the movie was when Peeta later told Katniss that he regretted throwing the bread, instead of walking outside in the heavy rain to give them to her personally (but we knew he was in trouble with his mother already). The two young lead actors were superb in their roles — Jennifer Lawrence as the flinty Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as the sensitive Peeta.

The movie added some foreshadowing from the second book, Catching Fire, such as a rebellion in reaction to Katniss’s tender farewell to the dying Rue of District 11 (who reminded her of her younger sister, Primrose — whom Katniss had volunteered to replace in an unprecedented act of self-sacrifice — but this allusion was left out of the movie). A clever addition was the punishment for the Gamemaster, Seneca Crane, in which he was escorted to a locked room in which he finds a bowlful of the poisonous berries that were recognized as Katniss’s rebellion.

Fans of the books may denounce parts of the movie, such as Katniss appearing beautiful and well-kept, so the transformation in the Capitol did not make sense. They may deplore the contrast of Katniss in a sleek leather jacket (it was her father’s in the book) and well-made boots to her neighbors in District 12 who were dowdily dressed in Depression-era garb. I would argue that it was a testament to her skill as a hunter that she did not look starved. Her Games costumes at the Capitol, designed by Judianna Makovsky (who also designed for “The Last Airbender” and  “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) were delightful and artfully impressed the Panem audience as the “Girl on Fire, ” an unusual and colorful representation of her coal-mining district.

Another caveat is the decision of the director, Gary Ross, to soften Katniss’s character, making her less obstinate and cynical, more likeable but less unique. Coming on the heels of the culmination of the Harry Potter series, Katniss is a fierce heroine who stands apart from the intellectual Hermione Granger. Before serving as tribute for her district, Katniss had to fight for her family’s survival. Starvation is a lonely, quiet battle, but probably no less terrifying than the adrenaline-inducing attacks by tributes wielding sharp weapons.

The Capitol denizens were depicted as ridiculous (with gaudy colorations and body decorations) and morally tone-deaf to the life-and-death situation of the Hunger Games, which they enjoy as entertainment and which they accept as rightful public policy to suppress future rebellion. A shout-out to the spot-on performance by Stanley Tucci as Games host, Caesar Flickerman, one of the two Capitol residents with kind words for Katniss (and broadcast to the entire country!). The other character, Cinna, alas, was reduced to being a less frivolous leader of her styling team.

“The Hunger Games” is a fine dramatization of the first book of Collins’ trilogy (four films are planned). The PG-13 rating meant that some violence was omitted and what is left is mostly obliquely shown or in blurry detail. Younger fans of the book could be taken along, if their parents accompany them in attendance. However, I would not advise bringing younger siblings who have not read the books.

“The Road We’ve Traveled” premiere in Philadelphia

This Thursday, you’re invited to the premiere of Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about President Obama’s first three years in office and the tough calls he made to get our country back on track.

Check out the trailer (if you recognize the narrator’s voice — that’s Tom Hanks) and join a screening in Philadelphia this Thursday, March 15th. RSVP now to save your seat.

  • Where: Independent Charter School, 1600 Lombard Street, Philadelphia, PA
  • When: 7pm, Thursday, March 15, 2012
  • Cost: Free!

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Be the first to see it — and make sure others do, too.

If you know anyone who needs to know about the progress we’ve made under President Obama, this is the film that they need to see.

When President Obama took office, our economy was in crisis, with 750,000 people losing their jobs every month, the auto industry near failure, and the markets close to collapse.

The Road We’ve Traveled follows the tough decisions the President made to bring our nation back from the brink and fight for the security of the middle class, from reining in Wall Street to ending the war in Iraq, reforming health care, and getting millions of Americans back to work.

The story’s told by the people who watched it unfold — like the First Lady, Vice President Biden, President Bill Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren.

Between now and November, this film will be one of the many tools we have to bring others into this campaign and get folks out to vote for the President.

Because you’re a part of this campaign already, you should see it first, then share it with everyone you know who’s been asking questions about the President’s record or needs to get more engaged around this election.

Why not invite them to come see it with you on Thursday?

“Paper Clips” Documentary Shown at Har Zion Temple

— by Bonnie Squires

The award-winning documentary, Paper Clips, was shown Sunday, at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, and Sandra Roberts, the eighth-grade teacher from Whitwell, Tennessee, who supervises the project, spoke to several hundred Har Zion Hebrew High School students, parents, friends and community members.  Seen here welcoming Ms. Roberts are (left to right) student Seth Selarnick, his mother Nancy Selarnick, both of Penn Valley; Ms. Roberts; and Norman Einhorn, co-principal of Har Zion’s Hebrew High School.

Ms. Roberts  was asked by her principal in the late 1990s to create an after-school project to each tolerance and understanding, particularly in light of the lack of diversity in their small-town middle school.  When Roberts learned that her students just could not fathom what 6 million would be, in studying the Holocaust and the extermination of Jewish communities in Europe, she challenged them to come up with a collection of 6 million somethings so they could touch and feel the enormity.

The students did research and learned that Norwegians wore paper clips on their collars during Wolrd War II as a way of showing quiet sympathy for the Jews who were perishing in concentration camps.  So Whitwell students began writing letters to famous people, journalists, companies, asking everyone to donate a paper clip in memory of someone lost in the Holocaust.

The Holocaust Project mushroomed, and an article in the Washington Post really helped launched the project.  The film, which was done about ten years ago, criss-crosses the country, raising awareness and teaching students and their families to work to stamp out prejudice.

Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Grey

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the National Museum of American Jewish History presented Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray,  a first-of-its-kind documentary that reveals the little-known struggles that faced Jewish-Americans both in battle and on the home front during the Civil War. This film reveals an unknown chapter in American history when allegiances during the War Between the States deeply split the Jewish community. It examines a time when approximately 10,000 Jewish soldiers fought on both sides; 7,000 Union and 3,000 Confederate. It exposes General Ulysses Grant’s controversial decision to expel all Jews from his territory, and tells the stories of President Lincoln’s Jewish doctor who serve as a spy in the South and how five Union Jewish soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor. It features commentary by noted historians, with Sam Waterston as the voice of Abraham Lincoln and narration by Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now).

This moving film allowed me to discover many surprising facts about American Jews during the Civil War.

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Various rabbis argued both for and against slavery. Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore wrote in support of abolitionism in his German-language newspaper “Sinai”. In 1861, he was run out of town by the local pro-slavery community. Imagine how differently the Civil War would have played out had Gov. Thomas Hicks allowed Maryland to join the Confederacy.

The word Jew was used mostly as a verb with a negative connotation at that time, so the Jews in the film mostly referred to themselves as following the Mosaic tradition, as Israelites or as Hebrews. This latent anti-Semitism was probably a factor in Jews being excluded from the Chaplaincy in the Army and Gen. Grant’s infamous General Order 11 which expelled all Jews from the Tennessee Territory – the only expulsion of Jews in American history.

Jews were loyal patriots and began to expect fair treatment in return. The Jewish community directly petitioned President Lincoln in both of these cases, and Lincoln was quite understanding. Lincoln appointed our countries first Jewish chaplain, setting the stage for Jewish observances during all future U.S. conflicts. Lincoln also reversed General Order 11. During the 1868 Presidential election, the question of General Order 11 was raised by the secular press; Grant repudiated the controversial order, asserting it had been drafted by a subordinate and he signed the document without reading. Grant won the election, receiving the majority of the Jewish vote. In fact, Grant participated in the dedication of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC becoming the first American President to attend a synagogue service.

Civil War historian Gregory J. W. Urwin, professor of history at Temple University, moderated the post-film discussion with Jonathan Gruber, the film’s director, producer and writer, and Rabbi Lance Sussman, Ph.D. and senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, a lecturer and author on Jewish history.      

For a list of showings of to order the DVD, please visit the National Center for Jewish Film website.