Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first and foremost. The Hunger Games is NOT Twilight. Outside of being young adult literature that includes a female as the protagonist the two series are opposites of one another. And don’t even begin to bring up the romance triangle angle that exists in both. No need to take sides and be part of a “Team”. M’kay?
With the Harry Potter saga complete and Twilight nearing the end of its series, a void was imminent when it came to young adult to big screen translations. Fantasy fare like The Golden Compass and The Chronicles of Narnia either bombed or suffered setbacks in the form of switching studios between productions. But The Hunger Games roots itself in science-fiction taking place in a dystopian society. It’s a popular novel, with more than 2.9 million copies in print, so a leap to the big screen as a franchise wasn’t unexpected. What is unexpected is that this first entry outdoes the likes of Twilight (an easy feat) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the films wouldn’t get really interesting until Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
The subtext of The Hunger Games offers unique themes about the proliferation of reality television and human suffering as a means of subterfuge for the real problems that exist. The best science-fiction touches upon events or situations that mirror our own. For instance, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was released during the Vietnam War and depicted a human raised by Martians interacting with the culture of Earth. Now replace the protagonist with a returning veteran reviled upon his arrival home to America, and imagine the difficulty he faced integrating back into society.
The core idea and its plot is borrowed from other sources – The Lottery, The Running Man and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale novel spring to mind immediately – but the film is done in such a way to make it unique; fans will be appreciative, while at the same time it is accessible for non-fans. And if the film is any indication of what’s in store for Catching Fire and Mockingjay – the two novels that complete Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series – then we can expect two more stylized and engrossing works about society and morality in the coming years.
The setting is North America, but gone are the states and cities that we know. Even America isn’t America. It’s Panem, rising like a Phoenix from the ashes after a major catastrophe destroyed our civilization. Instead of fifty states there are twelve districts that operate to stimulate the prosperous Capitol, a city where the furnishings and fixtures are far removed from anything you’re likely to find in an IKEA catalog. The year the story takes place is not given; our only clue of time is at the start as the districts are preparing for the 74th annual Hunger Games. Each year the districts must select two “tributes”, a man and woman, ages 12 to 18, to compete in a last-man-standing fight to the death where hidden cameras capture the carnage for all the districts to see.
Twelve-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected as the female tribute for District 12, but her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. Her male counterpart in the journey to Capitol is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). It is there where they receive combat training from Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a perceptive drunkard who won the games for their district more than 20 years earlier. To put on a “show” for the spectators to acquire sponsors as if they were NASCAR drivers, Katniss and Peeta receive makeovers and image overhauls from Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks looking like she was the missing cast member of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Katniss quickly establishes herself among the tributes by her boldness and fan-favoritism. This does not amuse President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who sees her as a potential threat in disrupting the Games. It’s not that no one ever wins from District 12, but Haymitch’s victory twenty-plus years earlier is an indication that it doesn’t happen often.
The pomp and circumstance that comes from visiting the Capitol changes once the games begin. A bloodbath ensues, but choreographed and edited in such a manner to confound and confuse one’s equilibrium. This was to ensure an audience friendly PG-13 rating. Similar to the TV series Survivor, there are alliances and eliminations to help speed up the game. There are no immunities, time outs, or restarts – only finality (ahem, death).
Prior to the games there is a moment shared between Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her closest friend (maybe something more?). He asks the question: “What if one year everyone just stopped watching?” It’s an interesting question and one that bares greater importance once the games begin. Several cutaway shots show the districts glued to giant electronic billboards in town squares standing like lemmings, totally fascinated by the death of others. It’s not much of a reach to see that the yearly ritual is a means for the Capitol to divert attention away from the problems facing most of the outlying districts – namely famine and destitution.
Remarkable female protagonists in cinema are somewhat of a rarity. Directors like James Cameron and Ridley Scott have a well-established history of making films that center on great heroines (like Aliens and Thelma & Louise). Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and most recently Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) showed how a compelling figure in literature could make a credible leap to the silver screen because of the performance of the actress cast in the role. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss can be added to the likes of Jodie Foster and Noomi Rapace/Rooney Mara. She is the movie’s key and there’s hardly a minute that goes by where we aren’t pulling for her to escape impending death or rooting for her when she brandishes a bow and arrow (her preferred weapon for hunting). It’s far too early to say if this is a career-defining role for Lawrence, who has already been the recipient of an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone. But she definitely stands out among the talented cast.
For me, the drawing factor for this film wasn’t the story or the actors involved, it was the participation of Gary Ross. Up until helming The Hunger Games he had only directed two other films (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit). While his prevalent use of shaky-cam in the action scenes follows a tired trend, it helps to offset the impact of the violent images. Had the sequences been filmed as they were originally intended – I’m told the veracity of violence in the books is drawn out – it would have achieved a restricted rating. Examining his earlier works it becomes clear why Ross would be interested in tackling such an adaptation. Pleasantville is a mix of reality and television and Seabiscuit is a real-life underdog tale. Both aspects feature heavily in The Hunger Games.
Unfortunately, even though the film runs 140 minutes (trust me, the time flies), some of the backstory appears truncated. But to fault the adaptation would be to blame the author herself. Suzanne Collins and Ross worked tirelessly on a screenplay that later got assistance from Billy Ray (State of Play, Breach). I’ll admit the dialogue comes across pretty cheesy at times. The repeated “May the odds be ever in your favor” phrase becomes tiresome in its usage to point that audiences may roll their eyes.
Despite its dark subject matter and being influenced by other sources, The Hunger Games is still effective. Sure, it may sidestep moral complications in certain situations with Katniss’ character, but it offers a number of topics worthy of discussion (importance of self-sacrifice; violence as entertainment; teenagers as sacrificial lambs to appease the masses watching, et al.). It also helps that the film’s sophistication extends beyond its genre to be something appealing to most audiences.
Director: Gary Ross
Writer: Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, based on “The Hunger Games” written by Suzanne Collins
Notable Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci