The Hunger Games is the most recent Young Adult phenomenon to hit our screens. Adapted from the first book of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy, it is safe to say that fans of the novels will not be disappointed by this film (Collins even co-wrote the screenplay). And for everyone else, never fear, there is still plenty to keep you entertained.
The story is set in futuristic, post-apocalyptic North America, now called “Panem.” Divided into 12 districts and presided over by the ominous President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Panem is controlled by the decadent Capitol, who uses the annual televised event ‘The Hunger Games’ (a punishment for previous rebellion), as a tool for fear and control. The Games force 24 children (“Tributes”) between the ages of 12 and 18, one male, and one female from each district, to kill one another in a death match in which there can only be one winner.
16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone) lives in District 12 amongst poverty-stricken coal miners, and when her delicate 12-year-old sister Prim is chosen as Tribute in the “Reaping”, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Katniss and the selected boy, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked off to the Capitol with their eccentric publicist Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and drunken mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). Once there they must employ any tactics they can to gain “sponsorship” from rich Capitol citizens that may save their lives once inside the game.
Sympathetic stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) helps Katniss make a name for herself, and Stanley Tucci plays an over-the-top TV host, Caesar Flickerman, to perfection.
But it is Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss that is the beating heart of The Hunger Games. Fans of the book and newcomers alike will be captivated by her masterful onscreen presence. In a genre containing many self-centred, apathetic female characters, Katniss is a surprisingly refreshing protagonist. Strong in her own right, both physically and in integrity, she works alongside the young men in her life, instead of standing by helplessly. These are qualities that young women can, and should, look up to.
Comparisons with other Young Adult film/book juggernauts are inevitable, though, and just when you thought you’d left the love triangles behind with the Twilight Saga, the headstrong, heroic Katniss manages to find herself caught between two love interests. Liam Hemsworth plays her best friend Gale and Josh Hutcherson is very convincing as Peeta, who is both charismatic and vulnerable.
The Hunger Games has a distinctive look and the gaudy opulence of the Capitol contrasts uncomfortably with the stark, grey dullness of Katniss’s home in District 12. Non-traditional editing including jump cuts, and cutting back to the same person is used to capture Katniss’s disjointedness as we follow these new, strange worlds through her eyes. Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) explains of his choices, “We never broke frame and made you think of this as a glossy piece of entertainment”.
Much of the rawness of the film’s source material has been sacrificed onscreen so as to appeal to a larger audience. A shaky camera effect is often employed, partially for a realistic effect but more likely to conceal graphic violence during combat scenes between minors.
For a book centred on children as young as 12 killing one another, this is pretty tame stuff compared to what it could have been. This may disappoint some fans. Ross certainly doesn’t glamorise death, and the Capitol’s attempt to do so is rightly portrayed as sickening and sadistic. Instead, the positive elements of the story such as bravery, friendship, sacrifice, and loyalty are played up.
The key to The Hunger Games’ success is that every element has been carefully measured. The strong leads make up for a few of the weaker supporting roles. Older veteran actors are peppered in amongst the younger cast. Every important plot point from the book has been included in at least a small way and any changes made things smoother. Dodgy CGI perhaps un-catered for in the budget was masked by camera techniques and lighting. And the cinematography, set design, costumes and direction- though ranging from edgy to basic- are all accomplished with skill, thoughtfulness and flair.
All in all, the idea of two more movies in this series doesn’t bother me one bit. With more great source material to come, and a heroine as wonderful and as human as Katniss (yes, she really is just as good as in the book, which is quite a feat to have accomplished), I say bring it on.