Just like Katniss, The Hunger Games is a sure win.
Film: The Hunger Games
Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland
For those fans of Suzanne Collin’s dystopian novel worried about this film, you can breathe easy. This may be the most faithful book-to-film adaptation that I have ever seen. Katniss, Peeta and Gale are all exactly as they should be. The buzz on Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss has not been wrong. She is wonderful. She is Katniss, the stoic yet sensitive young woman of action that a parent can feel good about their daughters obsessing over. Josh Hutcherson is utterly charming as the baker’s son, Peeta and while Liam Hemsworth does not have a lot of screen time (Sorry Gale fans) the film never forgets about him. So rejoice! You’re going to be happy!
But for those of you who are new to the world of The Hunger Games don’t be fooled by my enthusiasm. This is not a feel good film. The Hunger Games is set in the not so distant future in what is left of North America, now called Panem. There has been a terrible civil-war and as the film immediately establishes, the peace is now held by a yearly televised event in which a male and female child from each of the 12 remaining districts of Panem are offered up as sacrificial lambs. They must fight to the death in an arena designed to kill them until there is only one victor and be reminded that war is a terrible thing. Of course those lucky citizens born in the glittering and modern Capital City do not send their children to the arena; they merely watch it all like a demented version of American Idol in which they root for their favorites. A family event! Our heroine is from the poorest of those districts and her family struggles with finding enough to eat. Katniss and her friend Gale often sneak outside the barbed-wire fence that encloses their district in order to illegally hunt wild-game for their families. Katniss has had to grow up much too fast and shoulders the responsibility of caring for her young sister, Prim, after her father was killed in a mining accident and her mother falls into a debilitating depression. The rest you can guess or you have seen the trailer. Prim is chosen for the games and Katniss volunteers in her stead.
Once the Reaping is over we’re transported to the Capital City. We get to know Peeta the adorable male tribute from District 12 who has an interesting past encounter with Katniss. We also meet the District 12 team. Effie Trinkett, played to a ‘T’ by Elizabeth Banks, is the clueless PR manager. Haymitch Abernathy, Woody Harrelson, is their alcoholic mentor – a former victor from District 12 who struggles to emotionally connect. Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, is Katniss’ stylist – responsible for helping Katniss create a good first impression with the citizens of the capital and the possible sponsors that can purchase goodies for tributes if they are in need in the arena. Katniss and Peeta must also endure televised interviews from Caesar Flickerman, played by an absolutely manic Stanley Tucci. Haymitch, Effie and Cinna council the District 12 tributes on various strategies they can play for the audience with Haymich exclaiming at one point, “Hey, it’s television!”
The rest of the film is spent in the arena and while it earns it’s PG-13 rating, this is kids killing kids after all, the gore is kept to a minimum. Most of the action sequences are filmed in a handy-cam style that blurs and makes it extremely difficult for the audience to see a “blow-by-blow” accounting of the fighting. What you see is mostly aftermath- bloodied faces, hands and oozing wounds. Gary Ross does nothing else to soften the harsh realities of the arena. The Hunger Games architect is one Seneca Crane who treats death as ratings boosters and feels absolutely no guilt. Not all deaths are at the hands of fellow tributes, some characters die in horrible traps engineered by Seneca Crane to make the show more interesting.
This film is incredibly honest. It relies solely on the emotional vulnerability of its young stars and the target audiences love for the source material. Much of the film is framed in extreme close-ups. Gary Ross does not shy away from long periods of silence. Characters are not immediately likeable. Most of them come off as sullen or damaged in some way. Instances of camaraderie or friendship seem forced. While some viewers may claim the very idea of televised death arenas is ludicrous (and let’s face it, it kind of is) the film, like the novels, is completely aware that as an allegory for real life – The Hunger Games is often a painful reminder of how far we have to go as a society. This film will open up avenues of conversation between generations about mass delusions, violence, war and PTSD as well as happier topics like the importance of strong female characters (also archery!).
One of the reasons this film is not absolutely disturbing is that the audience knows in its heart that our heroine will survive somehow (maybe the existence of a whole trilogy of books helps us make that decision too). But what of our heroine will survive? As with the games themselves, this is a film you will not easily forget.
I give it a solid 8 out of 10.