The Hunger Games (2012)
Director: Gary Ross
Writers: Gary Ross (Screenplay), Suzanne Collins (Screenplay), Billy Ray (Screenplay), Suzanne Collins (Novel)
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland
Running time: 142 minutes
With the cavernous hole that has opened up in the wake of last year’s final Harry Potter film, and with the conclusion to the Twilight franchise set for the autumn of this year, it should come as no surprise that the major studios are already on the hunt for a new literary source that will appeal to fans of a similar demographic. Both J.K. Rowling’s bespectacled-wizard and Stephenie Meyer’s teenage vampires have proved to be game-changers in the landscape of modern cinema, demonstrating that the surest way to attract sell-out crowds is to work from source material that already has an invested and enthusiastic teenage fan-base. And while it’s a little unfair to wholeheartedly compare the two sagas (as a friend once said: “one franchise is well-written, with strong characterisation and tightly-woven plot-arcs; the other is the Twilight books”), they are nevertheless comparable in the ways in which they have been developed for the screen. As huge movie-franchises, both sets of films have enjoyed successful midnight openings, popular author signings, and widespread global merchandising, reaping the financial benefits that go with such demand, and ensuring that there is always a receptive audience for the next instalment. Until there is no next instalment, that is.
And so, with a certain necessity, we have The Hunger Games, a film adapted from Suzanne Collins’s hugely successful novel of the same name, and a novel that forms the first part in a trilogy of novels that looks destined to become a trilogy of films. Set in a dystopian future where America has been re-arranged into 12 districts that encircle a privileged inner-sanctum known as the ‘Capitol’, The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16 year-old girl from District 12 who volunteers in place of her younger sister to take part in the Capitol’s annual ‘Hunger Games’. These games are staged yearly as a way of marking a brutal rebellion, and take the form of a winner-takes-all death-match between young boys and girls who act as ‘tributes’ from the various districts. We follow Katniss as she is transported to the Capitol with the young Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to take part in the games; we see her presented to the bloodthirsty spectators who cheer and revel in the upcoming barbarity, and we witness her attempt to win sponsors through pre-arranged interviews. She trains for events – both physically and mentally – and picks up tips from mentors, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). And then, she fights for her life.
There’s no avoiding it; The Hunger Games owes an incredible debt to Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale. The two films are linked by the inescapable fact that we essentially have children and young adults killing each other on screen, and while Suzanne Collins may claim to have been unaware of Fukasaku’s cult hit, the similarities remain nevertheless. Yet, the film owes a debt to a number of other sources as well, and to bestow it with the moniker of ‘Battle Royale for Kids’ is neither fair, nor true. The film contains nods to literary sources such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Stephen King’s The Running Man, as well as echoing Norman Jewison’s 1975 film, Rollerball. Despite the film’s similarities to other works, The Hunger Games manages to function as an engrossing watch that, despite a number of flaws, successfully blends action and suspense with elements of science fiction and teenage romance, all-the-while signalling the arrival of another heavyweight franchise.
There is a moment in The Hunger Games where, for almost a whole minute, I was aware of nothing other than the images and sounds that were being broadcasted in front of me. This kind of total immersion is a rare thing; it’s easy to become absorbed in a film but to be dead to the world around you is something else. This revelatory moment occurs almost an hour into the film; we’ve witnessed the lottery-like selection process of the various tributes, the vastly superfluous wealth of the garish citizens of the Capitol, the hideous nature of the sensational interviews and parades required of the tributes, and the training and preparation that goes into forging a successful candidate in a tournament where their can only be one winner. Yet when the 24 tributes are on their pedestals ready to begin the games, there is no amount of exposition or build-up that can prepare you for the senseless barbarity that unfolds when the claxon sounds and the games begin. The scene is both shocking and mesmerising, and needs to be seen to be appreciated and felt.
The violence in The Hunger Games has been the focus of much discussion, and the 12A rating that the film has achieved in the UK is another source of contention. The film handles this issue delicately, making a clear distinction between good and bad violence; that is, violence for pleasure and violence for survival. Whilst I understand the necessity of this for a teenage audience, it is an element of the film that I found difficult to accept. Events are arranged so that Katniss never has to clash with the other contestants who fall on the ‘good’ side of the fence, and the film’s ending is a master-class in how to dodge a difficult issue. I would’ve preferred the film to have been brave enough to really blur the boundaries over issues of adolescent violence, yet I do understand the limitations imposed by the need to secure a 12A rating, as well as a desire to stay true to the original source material.
Despite my reservations over how the actual contest plays out, The Hunger Games is a film that gets a lot of what it sets out to do right. This is due, in large part, to Jennifer Lawrence’s magnificent portrayal of Katniss Everdeen. She hands the conflicted character just the right amount of strength and vulnerability; we believe in her dogged determination to survive, yet we also fear for her safety. Lawrence is remarkably expressive when it comes to showing subtle emotions – see her in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone for a further example of this – and here, she manages to portray one of the strongest cinematic female leads in recent memory with relative ease. The cast around her are equally up to the task; Stanley Tucci is memorable as sensational talk-show host Caesar Flickerman, and Woody Harrelson is suitably laconic as Katniss’s drunken mentor, Haymitch. Elizabeth Banks provides some necessary comedic moments as the highly-strung Effie Trinket, and overseeing all is the foreboding presence of Donald Sutherland as President Snow. The casting is strong, yet it’s got some way to go to match the legacy of the Harry Potter franchise.
The stylistic look of The Hunger Games is also interesting. The film’s director, Gary Ross, makes the conscious decision to shoot almost everything with a hyper-realistic shaky-cam aesthetic, and it is a decision that is both remarkably enthralling and frustratingly distracting. When we are in the frantic and treacherous environment of the Hunger Games, the shaky-cam approach heightens our perception of events; we experience movement as the characters do, and are gripped by the sheer kinetic power of the film. Yet in the film’s opening acts – most noticeably during the reaping scenes – the movement of Ross’s camera is distracting, and at times, a little nauseating. The lack of stability means that it’s hard to focus on the events that are happening; when the film should be drawing us in with its narrative build-up, it is effectively shutting us out. It’s a slight criticism, but one that is noticeable for much of the film’s opening hour.
The Hunger Games is by no means a masterpiece. The film’s plot is largely predictable, borrowing heavily from a number of literary and cinematic sources, and its hyper-realistic camera techniques are often distracting and confusing to follow. The film is also notably lacking in background details that may have provided a more solid footing for events; I really wanted to learn more of the history and development of the various districts, as well as their customs, their trades and their legacies. The political and economic climate of Katniss’s world was suggestive at best, and could also have done with some more subtle exploration. Despite this, the film is extremely entertaining; Jennifer Lawrence is outstanding as the determined female lead and her relationship with Peeta is complicated enough so that we truly care about its development. The film’s pacing is well-handled, and Ross successfully manages to produce a 12A film that really does pack a punch. It’s not as brutal as Battle Royale, but it’s no less shocking.
In truth, I cannot help but return to that moment when the claxon sounds and the games begin; where, for a full minute, I was completely entranced by what was unfolding before me. There is magic in cinema, and a little piece of that magic was in this film. Regardless of sequels, franchises, spin-offs and merchandising, that’s enough for me.