I should lay out the ground rules right here at the beginning. I have not read any of the books from the Hunger Games series. In fact, other than the basic premise, I knew nothing about Suzanne Collins’ ridiculously popular series before heading in to see this first big-screen adaptation. So this review will focus only on the film, and not how accurate it is compared to its written counterpart. Fortunately, what I have to say about the film is almost across-the-board positive. After John Carter turned out to be a dull, bloated mess of a film, The Hunger Games is a welcome relief, proof that Hollywood is still capable of making involving, thematically-rich blockbuster entertainment.
For those unaware of what The Hunger Games is all about, and I doubt there are all that many of you, here’s a quick rundown. The film is set in a future where society holds an annual event called the Hunger Games. In these games, a teenage boy and girl are selected from 12 separate districts to compete in a gladiatorial fight to the death. The last person still alive at the end is declared the winner. As the film opens, we are introduced to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her sister Primrose (Willow Shields), who are preparing for the selection of the Hunger Games contestants. When Primrose’s name is randomly and unexpectedly selected, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Along with other selection Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss is taken to the Capitol, where she will receive training until the games begin.
It’s almost inevitable that I note previous texts with similar premises to which The Hunger Games owes a sizable debt. Battle Royale is the one that seems to be popping up constantly in comparisons, but there is also the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Running Man, as well as older material such as The Most Dangerous Game and Lord of the Flies. It’s a credit to the strength of the production that The Hunger Games never feels derivative of those titles throughout its running length. Actually, I found myself reminded more of the dystopian films of the 1970s. Especially during the opening 20 minutes, the film evokes the dark, oppressive dystopian environments of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. Strangely though, once the film moves into its lengthy middle section, the film teeters dangerously close to the campy tone of Logan’s Run, or even worse, Zardoz. This middle section contains some of the film’s most interesting material, yet it’s also the section that I found the most problematic.
Throughout the middle section of the film, there is a strange contrast between the serious nature of the premise and the almost comical presentation of the Capitol and its inhabitants. It could just be my preference for bleak dystopian worlds and the oppression of humanity, but I couldn’t help feeling that all the crazy hairstyles/costumes and camp performances undercut the atmosphere of the film. I also would have liked a tougher examination of how the Hunger Games essentially functions as a reality show. As someone who absolutely hates reality shows, I loved noting the parallels between the games and what currently passes for entertainment in our world today. In the film, as the hype builds up for the games, each contestant basically achieves celebrity status, with the inhabitants of the city latching on to sympathetic stories and memorable personalities. It isn’t too much of a stretch to apply that to something like American Idol: the only difference between them is the contestants end up losing their lives instead of just losing television coverage. There were some nice moments in this section that made for some great satire, but hopefully this element is examined even further in subsequent installments.
I don’t want to make it sound like the middle section was a deal breaker for me; it really was more of a minor annoyance, and I can easily forgive the film because of all the other things it gets right. Mainly, there are some fantastic performances here. Jennifer Lawrence is the clear standout; it’s not often you have a strong female heroine at the center of a major blockbuster, and Lawrence delivers in just about every way imaginable. While Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Toby Jones all camp up their performances, Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland nicely underplay their supporting roles. Sutherland doesn’t have many scenes as the film’s behind-the-curtain villain, but he makes the most of them. There’s an absolutely terrific scene where he’s having a discussion with the games coordinator and you realize that he’s operating on a whole different level of warped morality. Having great performances in a blockbuster like this is so crucial; if we didn’t care about the characters onscreen, then there’s no way we could ever care about the Hunger Games themselves.
Speaking of those games, the film pushes its PG-13 rating in the final hour as the body count piles in the massive forest/arena. There are many moments of surprisingly grim violence, but director Gary Ross is able to maximize the impact without delving into too much detail. Sometimes his technique involves too much shaky-cam, but for the most part the final hour of the film is as thrilling and harrowing as anything I’ve seen in theaters this year. By the time the film ended, I was already eagerly anticipating the next installment. And if the box office numbers are any indication, we’ll be getting that next installment in the near future. In the meantime, I’m going to try and hold off reading the series; instead, I’ll just take comfort in the fact that there is a major blockbuster franchise actually worth caring about again.