The Hunger Games
d. Gary Ross / 2012 / USA / 142 mins
It seems that every studio is currently hunting for the latest and greatest teen-novel to adapt. Long gone is the era when companies solely marketed their products at a mature audience; in the 21st century, society’s biggest spender is its youth. In the last few years, with the splitting of books such as Breaking Dawn and The Deathly Hallows into multiple productions, it’s become clear that with the right marketing, and a fantastic (or at least popular) intellectual property, crafty producers can ensure that a franchise keeps generating profit for a remarkable length of time.
Unsurprisingly, and for this very reason, The Hunger Games has been compared to both the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises. Many have also cited it as being a Westernised re-imagining of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, alongside William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and various Greek and Christian myths. Such a debate surrounding the value of a film’s antecendants can be conducted without end, yet despite my own reservations in offering such a comparative definition, something remains within The Hunger Games that makes me question the cohesiveness of its identity, partly due to the means with which it draws together its disparate, dystopian themes, but also the mixed success it has attained in bringing page to screen.
In the first of four promised films to come, Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, adolescent subject of Panem, a society scarred by horrific division in class, and founded in a future that holds worrying similarities to our own. When Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected through an enforced annual lottery to take place in the 74th Hunger Games, she offers to take her place, sparing her from a brutal battle of almost certain death. Glorified and marketed as entertainment for the elite of the Capitol, the hunger games also act as a stark reminder of the price that past revolution has brought the malnourished, impoverished masses who live in the surrounding districts.
Used to hunting illegally to provide for her family, the bulk of the narrative follows Katniss’ attempt to translate her prowess with archery into the arena, a task that becomes harder when she develops protective instincts for fellow “tributes” Peeta Mellark and surrogate sister Rue (played respectively by Josh Hutcherson and Amandla Stenberg).
Although the author of the book, Suzanne Collins, co-wrote the screenplay and played a hands-on role in the film’s production, the loyalty with which the book’s events are depicted remains surprising, especially considering the graphic scenes of brutality found within the original text. Whilst the removal of blood conducted in the editing process has been well documented, the savagery found in the original is still present and those worried that the impact would be lost in translation have little to worry about. Ross has succeeded in the most difficult task he faced, maintaining a level of graphic realism appropriate to the age restriction, whilst avoiding the castration of the film’s darkest moments.
Critics have been keen to mock Ross’ use of Bourne-style shaky-cam whilst filming, but for the most part, the film offers a decent kinetic energy, and captures the hyperbolic tension and paranoia evident in Katniss’ struggle. The most memorable visual moments chiefly occur during Katniss’ exploration of the Capitol, the extravagancies of which act as an appropriate contrast to the antiquated districts and wilderness that form the majority of the film’s setting.
Fresh from an Oscar nomination for her performance in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence makes an empowering performance as Katniss, cementing her ability to headline two hugely succesful, concurrent franchises (she is scheduled in 2013 for a return as X-Men First Class‘ Mystique). The fact that she is several years older than her fictional counterpart removes a degree of vulnerability from the character but accusations that her build is too heavy by the occasional fan and critic are groundless and border on sexist (no claims have been made of the male actors’ lack of emaciation – neither do they reference Katniss’ “healthy” figure described in the original book).
Throughout many scenes, the film sells the believability of the universe and the reactionary nature of the book’s politics wonderfully. Without resorting to hyperbole, it’s safe to say that The Hunger Games is one of the most intelligent, mature and thought provoking blockbusters that has been produced in recent years with a younger audience in mind. When the film marries the Big Brother of Orwell with that as presented by Davina McCall, the methods with which mass-audiences consume violent acts is presented in a truly memorable fashion. I was doubtful that the interview sequences with oddball-host Caesar Flickerman would translate well onto screen but they prove to be the film’s highlights. Stanley Tucci nails the performance as a man who perfectly channels the contradictions of his audience’s crass sentimentality and extreme blood-lust.
However, in the same way that the film offers a myriad of views on various dystopian themes, so too can the scenes can be divided up into those that grip, and those that falter. Peeta’s ability to blend into his surroundings skirts absurdity when he converts practical camouflage into an entire coating of intricate patterns that emulate stonework and bark. The Truman Show-like cut-aways of the game-maker’s studio are necessitated by the lack of Katniss’ written commentary, but feel cheaply implemented and add little more than a crass means to shoehorn information to the audience, treating the viewer with little more respect than the spoon-fed Capitol residents.
Again, It’s a film of mixed success, which many will have varying views on, it’s certainly not hard to pick holes in and over scrutinise individual moments that don’t hold up quite as strongly as others. What really remains of worth, is its presentation of modern media and “primitive” barbarism. The story shines brightest when it focuses on the ways in which people are capable of emotionally engaging with both atrocities and entertainment; this is especially true when it casts an eye to gendered roles and the way a young heroine’s success and survival is dependant on her willingness to submit herself to the demands of a ravenous, patriarchal society.