Rob Keeling throws his hat into The Hunger Games ring with his take on Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins novel. Was he as enthusiastic about it as everyone else?
Like so many popular book trends, The Hunger Games craze completely passed me by. I hadn’t heard too much about the story until the hype around the film adaptation really gathered pace towards the end of last year and I began doing some in-depth research (by which I mean, ‘read Wikipedia’). I wasn’t sure what to expect from the finished article but after near universal positive reviews I was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about. After finally getting around to watching it I was pleased to find that it just about lived up to its considerable hype.
For the uninitiated, the movie is set in a dystopian future in the nation state of Panem. Power is centred in the affluent Capitol where the great and the good live in the lap of luxury equipped with the best of modern technology and basking in garish colourful surroundings. It is surrounded by 12 less fortunate districts where life is shown to be tough and brutal, food is desperately scarce and everything is a drab shade of grey. In other words, Panem is clearly split between the haves and the have nots. As a punishment for a brutally repressed uprising many years earlier, every year the 12 districts are forced to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12-18, drawn at random, to go to the capitol and offer themselves up as a sacrifice by competing in The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games is a vicious and grotesque spectacle of a reality TV show where the 24 ‘tributes’ from the districts are forced to fight to the death until only one remains.
One of those taking part in the Games is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough and resourceful girl from an impoverished mining district who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister when her name is called. Katniss bids her mother, sister and rugged boyfriend goodbye and along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a boy of similar age from her district, they are whisked off to the capitol to be trained ready for the games. This involves not only physical training and tips from their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) but also tips on how to catch the attention and win the hearts of both the initial judging panel and the watching audience at home. The early part of the Hunger Games is shown to be a bizarre mix between a beauty pageant and Crufts as the contestants are wheeled in before the cameras to show off their skills and attempt to win the hearts of the audience with some heartfelt pleasantries. Katniss becomes an early favourite thanks to her archery prowess and so once the game is under way, she is an obvious target for the uber-jock tributes who have formed a deadly alliance. These teenage killing machines come from districts where kids are trained from a young age to be fit and ready for the honour of taking part in the Games. The odds are stacked against Katniss, but a blossoming relationship with Peeta makes her a definite crowd favourite.
Comparisons have been made, quite understandably, with seminal Japense action movie Battle Royale, which pitted a band of unruly school kids in a brutal fight to the death. There is undeniably a dash of that in the mix, but while Battle Royale was based around punishing tearaway youths, The Hunger Games has very different subtext going on and operates in a very different universe. Battle Royale was a graphic and violent action movie aimed primarily at young adults. The Hunger Games is far more in the futuristic fantasy mould where the focus isn’t on the graphic nature of the kids’ deaths, but on the shocking spectacle surrounding it. The grotesque nature of reality TV is at the forefront of events in The Hunger Games as while the ‘tributes’ are technically there as punishment for the failed uprising, they are also there to provide a distraction and an outlet for the beleaguered folks back home in the districts and provide titillating entertainment for the masses in the capitol. Yet again this brings into sharp contrast the great divide between the decadent and carefree lifestyles of those in the Capital and the grim drudgery of those in the districts. The masses kept under the totalitarian boot of control, left to live in squalor, so that the few can live in luxury. The existence of class warfare and widespread media control are classics dystopian Sci-fi themes and The Hunger Games uses them to great effect.
It’s no secret that the producers of the movie were very cautious to ensure they achieved a 12a certificate in the UK. Despite the weighty subject matter, it is at heart a booked aimed at young teenagers and the studio no doubt was very wary that this would be their target audience. As such director Gary Ross adopted extensive use of the ‘shaky-cam’ method to hide many of the bloodier and violent moments and deftly cuts away at just the right moment in others. The severity of the situation Katniss finds herself in is never dumbed down or taken for granted and the director does well to make a film which is suitable for children to watch but at the same time is about kids being forced to kill other kids for entertainment.
Jennifer Lawrence puts in a great performance as Katniss, convincing physically as a skilled archer and hunter and emotionally in some of the more intense moments as well. She conveys Katniss’ age beyond her years superbly and shows steely determination in the face of overwhelmingly desperate conditions. Lawrence is the focal point of the entire movie but she is ably assisted with some stand out supporting roles from the likes of Stanley Tucci as a cheesy, preened and pampered TV presenter, Elizabth Banks as the tactless and tasteless escort and Woody Harrelson as the drunken former Games winner turned mentor. The young cast all put in strong performances too and luckily they have a fairly cheese-free script to work from. Other teen movies can often fall into the cliché-ridden trap of overly earnest and teenage angst ridden dialogue, but The Hunger Games manages to stay largely safely away.
There are already plans in motion for the next in the book series, Caching Fire to be made possibly as soon as 2013. Obviously being fairly uneducated in terms of the source material I don’t know what direction the next instalment takes, fingers crossed they maintain the winning formula, keep the hard-hitting action and social commentary and resist the urge to lurch too far into teen-romance territory. Obviously there is the love triangle aspect bubbling under the surface, but hopefully that is just one element of the plot and not its core driving force as in the Twilight saga.
The Hunger Games was an entertaining and well-made movie which was equal parts drama, action and science fiction. It doesn’t shy away from showing the darker elements of the novel’s story and feels suitably stark and brutal when required. It’s tackling an interesting and relevant subject matter and doing so in a manner accessible to both children and adults. For this it deserves great credit indeed.
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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