Pop culture needs its next big trend, and soon. Aside from an upcoming theme park ride, Harry Potter’s magic may have finally run out. The sun may finally be setting on Twilight, which despite having one more movie and a legion of obsessed fan girls, has led to the general public to largely be fed up with vampires and paranormal romances. Though it seems like twisted fairy tales may be what the media seeks to push for cinema, literature points toward another one: dystopia. One of the more lucrative and expanding subgenre’s in recent science fiction, and providing a number of genre classics in the past, it has started to strike a chord with a population under economic hardship and increasingly mistrusting of the government. Having dominated science fiction cinema back in the 1970s, which shared a similar mood, it seems Hollywood is ready to try and tap into dystopian fiction again, and is testing the waters with an adaptation of one of the series’ spearheading the trend, The Hunger Games.
The first book in a trilogy written by Suzanne Collins, the series follows a young woman named Katniss Everdeen, whom is cast into a gladiatorial contest known as the Hunger Games, and finds herself in the midst of both a struggle to survive, and in the midst of a struggle between the deviant and tyrannical Capital and the Twelve Districts is lords over for resources. One part Running Man, one part Battle Royale, with a dose of Lord of the Flies and The Lottery splashed in, the series has been a smashing success with readers, selling millions of copies world wide, and earning a devoted fan base in the process. Needless to say, it got the inevitable movie deal.
While I confess I haven’t yet read the books (With work and college, I’m still halfway through the Song of Ice and Fire series), as a fan of a good dystopia, I was intrigued by the movie. On one hand, it has a solid premise, a satirical core, and a cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence, giving this film more acting talent by name alone than half the Oscar-nominees last year. On the other hand, it is directed by Gary Ross, whom hasn’t made a movie since a couple of subpar Tobey Maguire films a decade ago, which complete with a marketing campaign vaguely familiar of the Twilight films – complete with Team Peeta and Team Gale regalia – was enough to give me pause. After reassurances from a number of friends who swear by the books, and told me the series is a solid sci-fi dystopia, I went with a group to see it opening night – though they did have to keep me from leaving during a trailer for the latest Twilight film.
Should the world be watching Hunger Games, or is this franchise contestant best left to starve? May the odds be ever in my favor as I take aim at The Hunger Games.
Our story opens on Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who lives in the Appalachian coal mining region of District 12, who is mature beyond her years out of need to provide food for her family, which she does by hunting in the woods. Her woodsmanship, level-headedness and her skill with a bow will prove vital when she volunteers to be sent as tribute in place of her younger sister to the Hunger Games, a gladiatorial combat, slash pageant held by the Capitol, both to entertain it’s idle and bored masses, and remind the Districts of their place in the pecking order. Katniss and her fellow tribute from District 12, Peeta, are going to need all the wits, cunning, theatrics and martial abilities they can muster if they have any hope of surviving this vicious cabaret – and even then, only one can win.
Let me begin by saying that unlike so many other movies (In Time and Lorax, I’m looking at you), Hunger Games utterly succeeds in building and showcasing a miserable dystopia. We are given a brief glimpse into the poor and miserable proles of District 12, whose blood, sweat, tears and children all go to support the Capitol, a city inhabited by what I can best describe as tie-dyed transvestite geishas, whom are largely vapid and trend-obsessed, and revel in the pageantry and slaughter of the Hunger Games. In addition to the swipes at totalitarianism required of most dystopias, it skewers media sensationalism, and the cultural obsession over sensationalism and violence – themes I’m surprised Hollywood kept intact. Another nice touch was signs that the Capitol’s system is starting to show some cracks, with both subtle disobedience and open rebellion seen from the downtrodden districts. If there is a flaw, it is that the overall story carries very little tension or suspense – there is never any real question what will happen, who will live or die, or how the movie will end. This is partly due to the movie being part of a trilogy (thus we can assume the fate of Katniss is secure for now) and due to the execution of the film (more on that in a minute), it hinders, but never hurts the movie itself.
Where the movie really thrives and excels is its diverse cast of vivid and varied characters. Nowhere is this more evident than lead lady Katniss Everdeen, who has given me some hope that the rising generation of women will have a better role model than Bella Swan. She is forced to be selfless and self-sufficient by circumstance, dedicated to helping her family, and especially her little sister, survive this harsh world, and her drive to return to them is what guides her thought he games. The character is well-developed and well-acted, no surprise given the actress behind the archer is Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence. Another great performance comes from the ever-reliable Woody Harrelson, as Katniss’ drunken mentor and former Games winner Heymitch, and is the source of much of the films humor and wisdom. Other performances worth nothing include Lenny Kravitz as the PR/fashion guru Cinna, Donald Sutherland in brief glimpses as President Snow, Elizabeth Banks as the Lady Gaga-esque Effie Trinket, Amandla Stenberg as pin-sized contestant Rue, and Liam Hemsworth as the rebellious Gale Hawthorne.
If there is a weak link in the cast, it comes in the form of Josh Hutcherson, who plays fellow contestant from District 12/love interest Peeta Mellark. He gets almost as much screen-time as Katniss, which is somewhat of a problem seeing as his performance has all the liveliness and charisma of a turnip. Almost all of his screen time is spent either staring slack-jawed or quoting his lines like he is literally reading them off of a teleprompter. We get more of a performance in the first ten minutes and a couple of facial expressions from Liam Hemsworth, or from Jack Quaid from a handful of lines than get from Hutcherson in the entire two-and-a-half hour movie, and by midway through I was tapping my foot whenever he was onscreen, hoping his appearance would pass quickly.
Another potential flaw in the characters and acting department is from all of the contestants not from District 12. In the case of all but three or four, most never even get a name or character details, let alone a line of dialogue or an onscreen death. Given that the central story revolves around watching twenty-four kids kill each other, this really harms any emotional impact we might have for their deaths. To use an example, Battle Royale, a similar book and movie (which a debate between fans of the film and fans of Hunger Games has sparked over which is better/more original – rather pointless since both are predated by similar films ranging from Logan’s Run to Running Man), even if the characters had no name, every death made the viewer feel something, or wince, and you felt your stomach drop if it was one of the characters you’ve watched develop over the course of the film. Here, most don’t even die onscreen, and when they do, you hardly notice. Rue, whose death I’m told was a central point in the novel, is introduced and killed off in the span of around ten minutes, and is forgotten just as fast. Either I’m a sociopath, or maybe ‘Hi, I’m (insert name here), and now I am the dead, bleh.’ isn’t the best way to make an audience feel for the fates of the characters.
Which leads us to the weakest point of the film, the direction and cinematography. Though the world building and plot execution is very well done, in every other area the movie either plays it safe or suffers. At times, the movie seems to distance itself from the richness of its source and concept, and nowhere is this more apparent than the main selling point, the titular Hunger Games. The entire way they were handled and shown could have been done so much better, with this part of the film suffering for lack of vision, action and tension, which given that we’re watching a gladiatorial match between children, is astonishing. What action or tension there is either bland or at times laughable – one of the few contestants to die onscreen is literally shaken to death. Given the subject matter, and the fact it’s part of of a trilogy implies who will survive, they should have pushed the limits of the PG13 rating and aimed to shock and awe the viewer, rather than surprisingly dull ‘fight’ to the finish. I think a lot of the flaws of the film can be laid at the feet of director Gary Ross, whom I now see for good reason hasn’t made a movie in over ten years. One only wonders what a masterpiece this movie could have been if it had been crafted by a bold and talented director, or at least one who didn’t paint by numbers.
Given just how much I’ve criticized the movie, you must think I hated it, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I enjoyed it greatly. The acting and character development (outside of the game itself) is superb, the world is richly described and showcased and a potent dystopia, and the story, though predictable and by the books, is still solid and enjoyable to watch. While, I am disappointed that the film is hurt by an intolerable male lead, poor direction and a sometimes questionable execution, it never reaches the point where it outweighs the strong parts of the movie, where it honestly and truly excels. I wasn’t blown away, but I was entertained, and enjoyed the movie. At the very least, it kicks the teeth (among other things) out of Twilight.
If there is a movie I’d compare Hunger Games to, I’d say it is a lot like the early Harry Potter films. It has a solid story, superb acting from most of the cast, and some splendid eye candy from the cinematography, yet is held back by a director that cannot handle the scope of the project, as well as a lack of character development and playing it safe in parts where some daring would have done nicely. Unlike those however, Hunger Games is still a very solid film, which though missing the mark a little, is still a solid bullseye as an entertaining film. I hope that the next two films take a few more risks, but given what I’ve seen here, I expect great things from the series. Aside from Chronicle, it is the first film this year that I will likely go see again, and am likely going to do so tomorrow, and if you haven’t seen it already, I recommend you do. Next big thing or not, whether or not the world will be watching The Hunger Games, I will be, and so should you.