|Poster design by Ignition Print|
For those unfamiliar with the source material (or the numerous reviews and marketing materials spelling out the set-up): in a far, far future the remains of North America are constituted in the new country of Panem. Panem is made up of the Capitol and 12 outlying Districts, with each District providing some much needed service to the Capitol. The Districts that lie closer to the Capitol, such as 1 and 2, share some of their wealth while those outlying Districts, such as 11 and 12, are poverty stricken and all but forgotten. To punish the Districts for daring to rebel against the Capitol 74 years previous, each of the 12 Districts must put forth a young man and a young woman to compete in the annual Hunger Games - a televised fight-to-the-death where teenagers compete against one another (and the Game-makers) to survive.
It is into this hard life in District 12 that Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen finds herself - with a dead coal-miner of a father, an emotionally crippled mother and a younger sister, Prim, who Katniss loves more than anything and would do anything to protect. Katniss and her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) supplement their meagre food rations by illegally hunting game in the wild - something that will come in handy for Katniss. It is Prim's first time in the ballot for the annual Reaping - the ceremony that randomly selects Tributes - and, of course, it is her name chosen as the female Tribute for District 12. Willing to do anything, Katniss instead volunteers herself in her sister's place. And so she finds herself questioning how far she'll go to survive and what it will cost her to get home.
As premises go, it's hardly an original one, with the novel and film sharing DNA with a number of sources/influences; everything from Lord of the Flies to The Running Man to Death Race 2000 to, yes, Battle Royale and Winter's Bone. But, quite frankly, that is nothing to hold against it. The Hunger Games is not a direct rip-off of anything in particular, but merely uses similar situations and setting to explore its own ideas and themes.
Gary Ross, the director of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, is not the first choice one would assume for a big sci-fi franchise starter. But it was an incredibly astute choice: his previous films have a focus on character and means his is a more subtle touch. He is comfortable allowing a look or a small action to stand in for a long, expository and didactic speech. I'm not so sure about the choice of using shakey-cam throughout the film. The style has begun to grate with me lately; instead of the intended affect of making me feel closer to the action, it in fact just draws attention to itself. The introduction to the world of District 12 is especially choppy, Ross constantly careening the camera around and cutting before we can get more than a glimpse of anything. It does settle down, thankfully, and allows the film to work its way into you.
The anchor for the whole film, the character and actress it all hangs around is Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen. She was astounding in her debut in Winter's Bone and in The Hunger Games she amps it up further. There's a lot beneath the surface of the character of Katniss, a lot that is left unsaid. But it's all there in Lawrence's performance. Whether it be as the provider for her family, the person who desperately volunteers as tribute to save her sister from the barbarity of the Games, the tough country girl attempting to preen for the cameras or the girl who finds herself, moments before the Games begin, shaking with a fear she cannot quite control.
For those of us that have read the novels, there are some revisions and additions to the text of the novel as there should be in any decent adaptation. And they all serve the story, as they should do with any decent adaptation. The Hunger Games is a serious minded science-fiction film, with a compelling lead character and a fair few interesting ideas hidden beneath the young faces and genre trappings.
Also, as a final note: The Hunger Games is not, as has been "hilariously" tweeted and retweeted "Battle Royale with cheese". I love Battle Royale but, godsdammit, it was not the first film to pit kids against one another and it CERTAINLY wasn't the first time audiences were entertained by death-matches. Did you catch all the very Roman names in The Hunger Games? Yeah, there's a reason for that. Sorry. It just feels like a lot of people being very lazy with their criticism towards The Hunger Games, with more than a whiff of the "Hunger Games are so lame 'cos I remember when I saw that cult foreign film that one time". Yes, there are similarities but it really wouldn't be the first time this has ever happened in the history of fiction.