Review – The Hunger Games
2012, 142 mins, 12A, Dir. Gary Ross, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth.
Based on an overwhelmingly popular young adult novel, The Hunger Games is set in a disturbing vision of a near-future America, a dystopia under the name of Panem, that is divided into twelve districts. As a punishment for a failed uprising many years ago, each district must put forward one boy and one girl annually to fight to the death in a colossal arena, thick with forest; an event which is televised across the nation. And it is exactly into this fray that Katniss Everdeen steps. A humble contestant from District Twelve, she volunteers in place of her younger sister. After days of publicity and preparation, Katniss is thrust into the dangerous, soulless Hunger Games, and is forced to keep her wits if she is to survive.
Suzanne Collins’ novel was fantastic – a work of teen fiction that not only encompassed complex ideas but also managed to completely transfix your attention. I was utterly gripped for the five or six hours it took me to read it and could barely wait for the film adaptation. Thankfully, the resulting product stays very close to its source book. The blistering pace is upheld throughout – while we spend a long time in the build-up to the games, it never feels slow or uninvolving. Quite the opposite. Even though I had read the novel, I found myself several times on the edge of my seat in anticipation, fuelled by its suspense and action. The future world is created with flair and the forest setting is deep and quite brilliantly shot, the camera often shaking to reflect the urgency of what’s going on, accentuating the fear of what’s coming next. Because, as the audience finds out, in the arena, anything can happen.
Collins has a screenwriting credit and the dialogue, as well as the tone of the film, is on a similar note. And of course, the strength of its female protagonist is palpable. Jennifer Lawrence, just over a year following her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone, is terrific as Katniss Everdeen. Though practically the entire film rests on her shoulders, her narrative voice an important factor in the success of the books, she shines with emotional strength and an energetic screen presence. She manages to outperform a strong supporting cast (even a remarkably strange-looking Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman) and drives the film forward with tremendous power. We can only hope that she continues to act in films that demand so much intensity – and with the sequel already on the rocks, it seems like a certainty.
The tone of the film is just right, never tongue-in-cheek or silly. It’s adapted for an audience, but it never loses its dark, driving sensibilities. The sheer horror of what is happening onscreen, teenagers killing teenagers, is approached in an unsentimental manner, and the dystopian future is breathtaking realised. District Twelve is a blistered and disdained place struck by poverty and hardship – a stark contrast to the almost cartoonish world of the Capitol. The central character is determined to prove to the Games’ autocratic authority that she is not just a pawn in their game – and her plight takes on all manner of seriousness.
It is a surprise, and a pleasant one at that, that the romantic element is not overplayed – indeed, it seems rather underplayed. I was honestly surprised at the amount of screen time devoted to the moments between two particular characters. While we perhaps miss out on some of the more emotional elements of the novel, this gives away the film to greater ideas and concepts than just a love story – it’s one of many intelligent decisions made by director Gary Ross during production, such as not to shoot in 3D. In the words of Ross, “We would be doing exactly what the Capitol is doing if we used 3D. We’d be exploiting what the book condemns: a mediacentric society where entertainment in that culture devolves into spectacle, and that spectacle evolves into political control.”
Go and see The Hunger Games. It’s a furiously fast, breathlessly suspenseful thriller anchored by superlative performances and intelligent writing. It’s dark, complex, driving and intense in equal measure and never loses its pace. The single outright criticism, aside from unimportant quarms, is that we’ll have to wait over a year for the sequel. Indeed, The Hunger Games made me tremendously excited and – dare I say it – hungry for more.