Review: The Hunger Games

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?

The Hunger Games film review Top 10 Films Jennifer Lawrence

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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.

Review by Chris WharfeSee all reviews

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

Buy on DVD:
Amazon.co.uk: DVD | Blu-ray

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About the Author
Chris hasn’t seen much of the world. What little he has seen frightened him a fair bit – he started life by almost drowning in a lake – and what better place to hide from the troubles of mankind than in the dusty aisles of the local cinema?

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  1. Avatar
    Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Chris and company:

    I’m not feeling the urgency to see this film.

    Which looks like an sloppily executed amalgam of the classic short story, ‘The Lottery’. Updated with a dash of the evils of Global Warming. Augmented with copious glittery, well sculpted physiques of ‘Twilight’. Tight leather outfits from ‘Underworld’ and a Dumpster full of Special Effects and CGI money. Wrapped around the much funnier, blatant motives of Elio Petri’s far superior ‘The Tenth Victim’ from the 1960s.

    In other words. A film designed, executed and marketed for today’s teen, tween and under 30 market.

    Oh, BTW. Huntress Jennifer Lawrence is going to mess up index finger if doesn’t drop it in your above photo. And miss her shot as well.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Jack: Great comment Jack…it made me chuckle. As for Jennifer Lawrence’s finger…I’m guessing…as I haven’t yet seen the film that, given the film is set in the future, these are therefore futuristic arrows where you point them in the direction you want them to go. They then oblige. That’s just a guess! 😉

  3. Avatar
    ruth Reply

    Nice review Chris! A very promising franchise, cool! I’m looking forward to it, the book is such a page turner so I’m curious how well it’ll translate to the big screen.

    @ Dan – ahah, good answer about the arrow!

  4. Avatar
    Dave Reply

    @jack:

    Though I see some of where you’re coming from with regards to “The Lottery”, this film merely takes one of the concepts of it, and uses it in a much more interesting way. I also fail to see where on earth you came up with the global warming slant, as there is absolutely *nothing* whatsoever to do with that in this film.

  5. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    I admit, I knew nothing about The Hunger Games (in either book or film format) until about a month ago. I’d heard snippets over the last 12 months, I guess, but nothing that said to me “this is going to be bigger than Twilight but not as big as Harry Potter”…. Color me surprised.

    What I am most happy about is that the reviews have been mixed about this film, meaning it’s not “wow let’s all jump on the bandwagon” great or “kick it because it’s cool” bad.

    Nice review, Chris!

  6. Avatar
    Daniel Reply

    Very honest review. I’m glad you pointed out the movie’s faults as well. I give the movie 7/10. Check out my blog where I’ve reviewed the movie also. Cheers.

  7. Avatar
    Squasher88 Reply

    Great review. I think we have similar feelings about the film. Here’s what I said on another blog:

    I thought the movie was decent, but the first half dragged a bit. Overall, it felt a bit restrained. It’s a shame, since I could sense that the audience was willing to go deeper and darker with the story. Jennifer Lawrence was good, but this was an easy role for an actor with her talent. I am definitely intrigued to watch the sequels.

  8. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    I haven’t seen this yet, but I’ve heard very mixed reviews from colleagues. Generally people who have read the book seem to enjoy the movie more. Complaints I’ve heard range from its too long-winded, to really cheap looking, and even underwhelming. As someone who hasn’t read the book I’m interested to see if I like it when I finally get around to watching.

  9. Avatar
    Chris Wharfe Reply

    Thanks for the kind words guys. I hadn’t read the book either before writing this review, but I’m planning on reading it in a couple of weeks to see how it compares to the film 🙂 I’ve heard from others that it’s quite similar, and nothing important was left out.

    I have watched the film again since this review and would definitely echo the statements made by myself and Squasher88 that it really needed to delve deeper into its themes. Here’s hoping the book goes into more detail 😉

  10. Avatar
    Russell_Oz Reply

    Great review Chris, I really enjoyed it!

    It was a really good balance for what you did like about it and what you felt didn’t work. I couldn’t agree more about the handheld camera work, it was beyond irritating. I’ll never understand why directors feel that handheld shaky camera are worth adding into a film. Ever.

    I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the film, I was pleasantly surprised and do look forward to the next instalment.

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