Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games makes its debut on the big screen under the guiding hand of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit director Gary Ross. How does it shape up?
This is it. The one we’ve all been waiting for. The Hunger Games could be quite readily labelled 2012’s first major release, what with the disappointing John Carter being quickly swept under the rug after an embarrassing box office performance. Does it live up to this promise where John Carter did not? Or have the masses of marketing and promotional hype surrounding the film simply set it up for a bigger fall?
The Hunger Games is the start of a brand new franchise, adapted from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of post-apocalyptic novels, and, in a sentence, is a very promising start. The teen-novel-to-film path is, at this point, a well-trodden one, with the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight having entered the mass consciousness for the past decade or so. The success of those two franchises, coupled with the fact that the Potter films are actually somewhat decent, gives The Hunger Games a lot to live up to.
The basic premise of the film is not dissimilar to that of Battle Royale, or even that of Arnie classic The Running Man – indeed, it combines elements of both. In what was once North America (but is now ‘Panem’), ‘Tributes’ between the ages of twelve and eighteen are selected from across the twelve districts (the populace of which we’ll call ‘the 99%’) to compete in what is essentially a fight to the death, arranged by the Capitol (‘the 1%’). It’s a thinly veiled attack on fascism, but also highlights the very real consequences of rebellion in such a society: the ‘Hunger Games’ are a punishment for an uprising over 70 years ago, in which the thirteenth district was supposedly destroyed.
“With some terrific performances and memorable sequences, The Hunger Games has set the precedent for what should be a very promising franchise.”
While this might sound vaguely familiar to fans of the two aforementioned classics, what sets The Hunger Games apart is its focus on the personality and soul of its characters rather than the bloody dismemberment of them. Indeed, seven minutes of footage were reportedly cut from the film to secure a 12A rating – be warned, though; while most of the violence is implied, a few slit throats and broken necks still make their way in. It’s tender stuff, especially with kids as young as twelve, and does raise the question as to why this sort of thing found its way into a book aimed at fifteen-year-olds in the first place.
The film places its focus on sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers to participate in place of her younger sister. Lawrence slots nicely into the role, though she is anything but formulaic in it: she thrives with refreshing conviction, amplifying Katniss’ empowered nature but still showing her love and loyalty to her friends and family. In many ways, she’s the ideal role model – a courageous underdog, and one that we’re not afraid to root for. Where Hermione Granger was merely a secondary character and Bella Swan instantly unlikeable, Lawrence emphasises Katniss’ presence and demands our attention, but in such a way that we’re keen to give her it. She’s the big sister we wish we all had.
Elsewhere we have Josh Hutcherson, who’s breaking into the serious roles after dabbling in family and comedy films (think RV: Runaway Vacation and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Yes, he’s come a lot further since then) as the other District 12 Tribute (and a potential love interest of Katniss’, as it turns out). A handful of more famous faces – Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland and Elizabeth Banks – also have quite major roles to play. Watch out for the latter; Banks proves her versatility and range in a role quite opposite to her usual comedic jaunts. Oh, and Woody Harrelson’s in it, providing most of the laughs with his perfect comic timing.
Sadly, it’s not all rose-tinted glasses: the most noticeable flaw with The Hunger Games comes just seconds into the film, as we realise director Gary Ross has seemingly instructed his cameramen to jump up and down on the spot. Yes, there’s a bit of handheld camera work here, most notably in the opening fifteen minutes, and yes, it’s very irritable. Luckily, as the film progresses (albeit rather slowly) and the action relocates to the Panem Capitol, Ross breaks out the tripods and things get a bit more level headed. When we finally get to the arena (you may be sensing some disdain with the film’s pacing here, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but I’ll come to that in a second) the jumpy shots and fast cuts return, though feel much better placed in the frantic battle of the Games.
“It isn’t all rose tinted glasses: some sequences feel slightly underwhelming; secondary characters are left undeveloped (mainly the antagonists), while the overarching themes of fascism and rebellion are merely hinted at. “
So yes, here’s my other fault with the film, though it’s perhaps not one I can level at Ross himself: rather I should file my grievances with Ms Collins; for her novel, while perhaps worthy of its adulation across the literary world, could have perhaps fared better on the silver screen with a few changes. The build-up of the film to the point where we actually find ourselves in the Games is a tad slow, and by the second act we’re itching to just get on with it. But then, once we finally find ourselves in the leafy forests of doom, we’re not there for long. The Games comprise merely the film’s third act, and while the film enjoys a lengthy 142 minutes runtime, the setting feels wasted. More traps could have been laid; more attempts to interact with the scenery in more interesting ways (though do look out for Hutcherson’s camouflage).
Early in the film we’re told that many of the combatants will die from natural causes. Why, then, do we see little impact of the contestants’ need to survive? Of course, this isn’t Bear Grylls, but it’s not a walk in the park either. Various elements of the film feel slightly underwhelming in that respect; secondary characters are left undeveloped (mainly the antagonists), while the overarching themes of fascism and rebellion are merely hinted at. We do see a minor uprising in one of the districts after a combatant’s death, but one which, while brilliantly filmed, merely dissipates into one of the bad guys looking slightly worried.
But this is, of course, the first film of a trio, and, as such, acts in many ways as a precursor to what is to come. Here’s hoping the sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, dig a little deeper into the admittedly rather interesting themes The Hunger Games prompts at. Because while the film does feel underwhelming in many ways, it still doesn’t disappoint, and is, at least, entertaining – with some terrific performances (watch out for music man Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ mentor Cinna) and memorable sequences, The Hunger Games has set the precedent for what should be a very promising franchise.
Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
Released: 2012 / Genre: Sci-fi/Action/Drama / Country: USA / IMDB
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