Directed by Gary Ross. Screenplay by Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, based upon the novel by Collins. Produced by Nina Jacobson, John Kilik. Music by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard. Photographed by Tom Stern. Edited by Steven Mirrione, Juliet Welfling. Production designed by Phillip Messina. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland.
Here it is, at long last: The Hunger Games. Heralded for many months now as the next Harry Potter or Twilight, The Hunger Games is, in reality…neither of those things. The difference is not a matter of pedigree (all are based on blockbuster young adult novels) or production (the money is as noticeably onscreen as any other franchise), but of tone. This is an unremittingly dark movie that tests the limits of not just its home genre of kid literature, but also its PG-13 rating. The premise, which is about nothing so less as a futuristic gladiatorial death match between 24 teens and pre-teens, would probably shock childrens’ authors of long ago, but now seems to sit uneasily next to the bloodless battles in Harry Potter and the near-cuddly vampires of Twilight. Still, The Hunger Games is quite a curious paradox: it’s a gripping and involving young adult story that arguably should not be read (and now seen) by anyone under a certain age.
That sounds like a criticism. It’s actually not, just a plea for careful parenting. For the rest of us, The Hunger Games is a pretty terrific time at the movies. There’s action, suspense, humor, terrific performances, fine direction, and—here’s the crux of it—character development and an overall sense of maturity that redeems the pulpiness of how the plot sounds. It would be easy to imagine a terrible story centered around this kids-fight-to-the-death outline. But no. The Hunger Games is actually a pretty good one.
And as far as heroines go, The Hunger Games has a pretty great one. That would be Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who is firm, tough, and resourceful enough to be the key provider for her sister Prim (Willow Shields) and emotionally-distant mother. One has to be strong to survive in the world of The Hunger Games, as it is a world (a nation called Panem) divided into 12 impoverished “districts” with a central capitol of decadence and wealth. But Katniss still takes the cake in heroism: when Prim is selected as part of a district-wide “reaping” ceremony to participate in the Hunger Games, she tearfully offers herself as a replacement volunteer, and is greeted with stunned silence from her timid peers.
What are The Hunger Games? They’re a yearly ritual in which a boy and girl from each district are placed into an arena and forced to kill one another until a survivor reigns supreme. This barbaric tradition, conceived as an eternal punishment for a long-ago uprising, is accepted as fact by the citizens of Panem and seen as an important tool by grandfatherly President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to keep the populace both frightened and entertained into dual submission. The twisted aims of fascist dystopias might seem like heavy material for a book whose readership skews this young, but you have to admit, it’s daring.
Katniss and her counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked off to the Capitol, to be ranked and trained for the upcoming games, and also to appear in parades and talk shows lorded over by the grotesquely-coiffed Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). Like in Suzanne Collins’ source novel, much hay is made of the Games being not just an event, but a practical industry filled with contracts, sponsors, talents, and general hangers-on. The preamble to (and inevitable play-by-play of) the Hunger Games blood sport is couched in language that will seem teasingly familiar to anyone who’s watched TV during Olympics week. There are ample opportunities for satire here, and many of them are gleefully taken.
There’s little subplots, as well: namely ones of discord and mistrust between the combatants and their mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), who drinks like…well, Woody Harrelson, and has the audacity to treat them (at first) as kids who are probably going to die. And there’s also complications between Katniss and Peeta, who grow to…maybe…feel things for each other. You’d think it would be difficult to kindle a love affair between two people who are, by the strictest logic, meant to kill each other, but the heart, as they say, will find a way.
And that opens up the second half of the film, which features intense, brutal combat and strategy as the kids take to the forest and begin to plot and murder, while cameras track their every move for broadcast. The twists and turns would be unfair to reveal, but what I will say is that this is a violent film that is considered about its violence. Despite its sensational premise, the combat isn’t glorified, but is depicted in naturalistic terms, and also as an extension of the unfairness of the capitol, which is willing to rig the game in multiple ways in order to generate its preferred outcome. There’s also a key role in the plot for balloons filled with supplies from the outside, which depend less upon script contrivances and more upon Katniss’ aptitude for being a likeable reality TV star.
The film lives or dies under the central performance of Jennifer Lawrence, so I’ll be blunt: she’s electric. This is a star-making role…that is, for those of us who still need convincing that she’s a star. Katniss is onscreen for almost every second of The Hunger Games’ 132-minute runtime, and she commands the material in much the same way she riveted those who saw her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone (which gets echoed here in some of the set-up material dealing with Katniss’ family). Lawrence successfully conveys compassion as well as steely resolve; unlike many actresses who would seem uncomfortable inhabiting this material, she blends in perfectly with this fantastical world. And many of the later passages depend upon her ability to convey pure thought, as she improvises, learns and discovers, without any sloppy lines of dialogue meant to explain things for the dummies in the audience. It’s a task that she’s more than up to, as few actresses of her age would be.
Not to be outdone, the rest of the cast is quite strong. Hutcherson makes a likable Peeta, even as we wonder who’s side he’s on (if anyone’s), and Sutherland is able to draw rapt attention even when he is absolutely silent. Harrelson, as the drunken Haymitch, is perfect casting, veering away from caricature and finding a humanity underneath the shambling wreck of his public persona. There’s also the viewpoints of District 12 cheerleader Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who is made up like a kabuki actor and doesn’t have much to do with the actual story, but man, is she entertaining. Even more removed from the proceedings is Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who glowers on the sidelines and is clearly being kept in reserve for future films.
The director is Gary Ross, who also helmed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, and you might assume would be the wrong choice for this material. You might assume wrongly. Ross does a terrific job of not just amping up the tension of the fight scenes, but also capturing the details of life in the districts. He wisely favors close-ups and appreciates details, giving the whole enterprise a fittingly tactile quality, which compensates for some occasionally lacking special effects. Katniss, for example, is adept at a bow and arrow, but the film treats this fact as a genuine skill that requires work, and not a perfunctory element of the plot. The film’s sound mix is also spectacular.
Ross does occasionally misstep, mostly in the name of preserving the film’s PG-13 rating. The fight sequences are relentless but sometimes hard-to-follow, utilizing handheld photography that not only obscures the action, but in one or two instances makes it nigh-incomprehensible. And he also glosses over some of the more disturbing elements of Collins’ prose, leading to a hasty conclusion that seems to be missing a couple of emotional beats. Perhaps they will be supplied by the inevitable sequel, which is just as inevitably foreshadowed here. Also, I could have used fewer cutaways from the action: the constant visits to Katniss’ home and also the den of the “gamemakers” feel repetitive, with the latter summoning memories of The Truman Show in the way a group of engineers shape an televised environment in order maximize drama.
Nevertheless, The Hunger Games is an effective entertainment that engages in dark (but sensitively-handled) material, and establishes a film franchise that I’m eager to see continue. I wouldn’t take little kids to see The Hunger Games…but I’ll go see it again, absolutely.
Note: Many have commented The Hunger Games is a “rip-off” of a 2000 Japanese film called Battle Royale. It is a compelling argument, especially for people who have not seen many movies.