The Hunger Games
Directed by Gary Ross. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Willow Shields, Leven Rambin, Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Dayo Okeniyi, Kalia Prescott, Donald Sutherland, Isabelle Fuhrman, Paula Malcomson, Toby Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Brooke Bundy, Mackenzie Lintz, Alexander Ludwig, Jack Quaid. Written by Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, from the novel by Collins.
A surprisingly serious-minded piece of young adult sci-fi from the bestselling series of novels by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games comes close to matching the best of the Harry Potter or Twilight series. It isn’t perfect – and the filmmaking, under the helm of director Gary Ross, features some serious flaws – but it’s considerably better than it might have been had less care been taken to the material.
In a post-apocalyptic future, the wealthy Capitol rules over 12 satellite districts; as punishment for a previous rebellion, every year each district submits one boy and one girl from the ages of 12-18 to compete in the Hunger Games: a televised competition in which the combatants fight to the death in a forest arena for the amusement of the viewers.
Familiar territory. This premise was a favorite of Steven King, who published the similarly-themed novels The Long Walk and The Running Man early in his career under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. Those were game show satires; The Hunger Games has a similar target, reality TV, but the satire, while always present, rarely feels as pointed as it ought to be.
In District 11, 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected by lottery to take place in the Games; saving her life, 16-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her place. Her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) reveals he’s had a crush on Katniss. Ooh…that’ll be good for ratings. But can they compete with the well-trained warriors from Districts 1 and 2?
The acting (and casting) here is excellent: Lawrence (coming off a terrific performance in Winter’s Bone) is a commanding presence, and makes for a wonderfully resourceful female lead. Hutchinson is likeable playing second fiddle to Lawrence’s heroine, and the other young actors competing in the Games are effective, if (mostly) briefly glimpsed.
Surrounding them in The Capitol is an all-star cast. Best of all is Elizabeth Banks as the over-the-top Effie Trinket; the retro-futuristic Victorian fashion of The Hunger Games is one of the film’s most amusing aspects. There’s also Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, District 12’s stylist; Woody Harrelson as Haynitch, a previous winner of the games who mentors Katniss and Peeta; Stanley Tucci as a talk show host; Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, overseer of the Games; and Donald Sutherland as President Snow, ruler of the Capitol.
Similarly-themed films, especially the Schwarzenegger-starring version of The Running Man, have been subversive guilty pleasures that deliver the same kind of fight-to-the-death thrills for us that the on-camera spectators receive. The Hunger Games is more serious-minded, providing a thoughtful treatise on this state of affairs…but the second half of the film cannot escape the morbid attraction of the premise, and the theme is muddied.
There’s a really good ending here – which almost occurs, before the inevitable need to set up a sequel takes over. Hopes will be high for the next two films in the series, which are sure to be made after The Hunger Games’ record-setting opening weekend.
Here’s the film’s biggest drawback: the bouncy ball, too-tight camerawork, which frenetically leaps all over the screen and cuts from close-up to close-up to close-up during scenes of hushed dialogue. During action scenes, we expect it; here, the entire movie has been filmed in positively nauseating queasy-cam by Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern (who has shot, superbly, Clint Eastwood’s last ten films, dating back to Blood Work).
The camerawork goes beyond the typical Paul Greengrass shaky-cam, quick-cut style, which has affected just about every mainstream action movie in the last ten years: the camera isn’t just quivering, documentary-style, someone is manically thrusting it up and down. The over-the-top bounciness reminded me most of the endlessly swirling opening moments to Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. After twenty minutes, feeling (vaguely) physically ill, I had to leave my (standard) front row seat and head for the rear of the cinema; it seemed to get better after that.
I have another (minor) gripe. I can buy the premise; heck, with the current state of reality TV, we could have our own Hunger Games in the next 20 years – only legal boundaries, not moral or ethical ones, seem to be preventing this from happening.
But if I’m going to watch a fight to the death, and be content with it, it better be a damn fair fight. In The Hunger Games, we watch in horror as the Games’ programmers literally throw fireballs and giant hounds at our heroine in an attempt to influence the outcome. Completely unacceptable in any ‘sporting’ event, and grounds for rebellion by the districts and rejection by the Capitol audience, who shouldn’t be showing this kind of interest in a pre-determined ‘game’.