Rapid Review: The Hunger Games
All hail Suzanne Collins, who single-handedly saved much of our teenage population from Twilight Saga overdose. Collins’ Hunger Games series tells of a dystopian society that is in turn both terrifying and thrilling. Collins isn’t afraid to pull punches with her characters or her setting; there are many shades of gray in the world of Panem. This is part of what makes Katniss and her story wildly more entertaining than most of the bland or overworked YA lit out there.
The Hunger Games is directed and co-written by Gary Ross, who is best known for sentimental films such as Big and Seabiscuit. Wisely, he chooses not to sentimentalize most of the material into heartwarming drivel, which would take the soul and purpose out of the series. Most of all, however, he gets one thing spot on: this is Katniss’ story.
Katniss is played by powerhouse actress Jennifer Lawrence, who was amazing in Winter’s Bone and keeps showing her chops in every movie she’s been in since then. She’s the perfect Katniss – a combination of toughness and feminine nobility that’s hard to capture. Katniss lives in District 12. Devastated by hunger and grief, its citizens live in constant terror of what the next day might hold. They are the ancestors of a former rebellion gone awry, and their children are paying the price for a long-ago attempt to topple the despots that still rule over the nation of Panem with an iron fist. Panem is Latin for “bread”, hence some of the irony in the circus that is presented in the games.
One day, Katniss’ worst fears are realized: her young sister Prim is picked in the lottery to be a contestant in the “Hunger Games” of the title. The ironically named “tributes” chosen from each district must battle it out in a Thunderdome-style battle to the finish (tons of folks enter, only one leaves). The outlying districts are meant to see this annual spectacle as both a punishment and a reminder of what happens when you attempt to take justice into your own hands. There are lives, fates and destinies on the line. Katniss does the noble thing and volunteers to take Prim’s place.
Katniss is immersed in the world of the Capitol, a cartoon-like, colorful zenith of society that is addicted to glamour, fame and inflicting pain on the poor and needy. That last part probably isn’t what their tourism board chooses to highlight. Once she is in the Capitol, Katniss is under observation 24-7 by the world at large. This includes the government higher-ups (most notably President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland), who rightly assess that she is a stunning combination of ratings gold and ticking time bomb. Katniss cares more about her family and about changing the cycle of violence than she cares for her own safety. She’s a wild card in a world where self is usually all.
Katniss is aided in her journey by the drunk and blustering Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), who is supposed to be a trainer, but specializes more in ironic commentary. Her male counterpart from District 12 is the mild and sad-eyed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Peeta is in his element in the early Capitol scenes as his PR skills help establish the District 12 pair as one to watch, but on the battlefield itself, the roles are reversed. Still, there’s a muddled history and a strange chemistry between Peeta and Katniss that is palpable when they are together.
The movie is at its best when Katniss and the various District teams are fighting it out in the arena. The camera work is done with hand-held “realism”; it is jarring, haphazard and engrossing, showing how suffocating and tiring the constant survival must be for all involved. This is in sharp contrast to the circus-like citizens of the Capitol, played by Elizabeth Banks (as Effie), a sly Wes Bentley as head of the games Seneca, and rock star Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’s sleek stylist, Cinna. Still, some of the scenes are toned down or modified (no doubt to stick to a kid-friendly rating) and that rips some of the danger (and the artistry) out of the struggle. We know that this is all pretty abominable stuff, but where’s the emotional payoff? I felt as if we were missing some vital acknowledgement of the twisted reasons why we (both Panem and the movie audience itself) are so compelled to watch someone’s inevitable destruction right to the very bitter end. What we get are some pretty but harmless shades of gray that remind me of the Depression-era styled District 12 itself.
There’s also the inevitable love triangle. Katniss has a strong connection to her best friend, the stoic hunter Gale, but she begins to see Peeta in a different light as the story progresses. Things don’t go in the usual rom-com, formulaic fashion, which is a tribute to Collin’s original work.
Overall, The Hunger Games is a worthy adaptation of the first book in Collins’ series. Sure, fans will no doubt grump and complain about details that have been switched around or omitted altogether (and there are quite a few). Katniss’ battles in the arena, while effective, are a bit like the iconic re-edit of Han and Greedo in the cantina in Star Wars; you find yourself thinking, “Hey, that’s NOT how that went down in the original…”
Author Suzanne Collins is one of the co-writers of the screenplay, but there are limitations in the film world that she didn’t have to deal with on the page. There are a few moments that don’t ring true, but that’s mostly a fault of direction choices and omissions, which err on the side of caution when they present some of the scenes as glossy and weepy when they should be stark and realistic. That’s what you get when you have to aim for a teen market. The actors and technicians of the film, however, have tackled things admirably, and usually manage to make even the awkward moments work.
These are minor gripes, in the long run. Does the movie accurately capture the characters in all their tension that made the books so amazing in the first place? Absolutely. The world of Panem is brutal, gorgeously rendered and absolutely entertaining. Plus, with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, we have a heroine we can root for, fear for and live vicariously through. That’s movie gold, in a nutshell.
Overall Grade: A –