Well, the time has finally come for the most anticipated fantasy/sci-fi franchise of the year. All you YA fans have been jonsing like starving addicts for “the next Harry Potter”, and now you can wipe that drool off your face and settle down folks, The Hunger Games delivers!
Right from the beginning, the film strikes, literally, the right note with a somber, twangy acoustic score under simplistic titles explaining the history of the Hunger Games: After a disastrous civil war, the country of Panem instated an annual contest where one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each of its twelve districts are chosen to compete to the death in an elaborate arena. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the coal mining District 12; a drab version of Appalachia which looks as if the poor, rural town in Winter’s Bone (superb film, also starring Lawrence in a notably similar role) was worm-holed to a Great Depression-era alternate history. During “the Reaping”, or the ceremony where contestants (called tributes) are chosen, Capitol appointed District 12 escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) chooses the name of Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields) from a giant fish bowl. In order to save her sister, Katniss volunteers in her place and is thrust along with another tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), into the contest of her life.
On the train to the Capitol, Katniss and Peeta meet their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson – brilliant casting), one of the few survivors – or winners – of the Games, haunted by the violence of his past. And as the wind-up to the Games commences they realize that there is more to surviving than being the strongest or fastest. The Games are broadcast live in all of Panem’s districts, and conducted by the most evil television director I’ve ever seen (and as someone who has worked in television, I’ve seen a few). As we learned in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in order to win the game one must “win the crowd”.
Fans of the books will be familiar with the story and they’ll be happy to know that the movie follows faithfully enough (the book’s writer Suzanne Collins is an executive producer). Although for a story surrounding a vicious fight to the death the movie is weirdly devoid of gore, and suffers for it when it reaches for a sense of urgency and danger and finds there’s nothing there. Misadventures in movie ratings aside, the movie hits on all other targets. The emotional high point of the movie, halfway through the Games, is a killer one – Oh yes, there will be tears. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is appropriately attractive and broody and Peeta is just as clever and manipulative as he should be. Jennifer Lawrence, perfectly cast, is a naturally strong and likable lead. As Katniss, she shines, tapping in to that deep-rooted sense of American survivalism and self-sufficiency that makes cheering for her irresistible. Driven by the necessity of want, she’s older than her years, no-nonsense, a crack shot with a bow and arrow and can handle her business. Which throws into greater contrast the silly eccentricities and pageantry of the Games with its brutality.
It seems unfortunate to me that the promotion for The Hunger Games has played a little bit too heavily toward the pageantry side. I’ve seen multiple articles on the fashion of The Hunger Games – What crazy look is Effie sporting? What about Katniss’ girl-on-fire costume? Buy The Hunger Games nail polish! It seems as though the message of the books has been lost in marketing, and I wonder what teen girls who see this movie will come away with? Will they be throwing out their nail polish or melting over Liam Hemsworth as Gale? I think it’s more likely they’ll be drawing back bowstrings at their archery lessons with painted nails. In the end the movie shares its few weaknesses with the books. While The Hunger Gamesbares its teeth at consumerism, elitism, authoritarianism, and other -isms, it lacks any serious bite. It gently touches on a critique of our reality-TV addled society but unfortunately its edge is dulled by its PG-13 rating and its subscription to teen romance. But I shouldn’t review this movie based on what I wish it would be as an adult. The Hunger Games is a well done, superbly cast young adult movie and a great survival story if not a great sci-fi parable. Now, when is the next movie coming out? *commence drooling*