After reading the trilogy of novels from Suzanne Collins, I had no idea what to properly expect from The Hunger Games. How could I? The story involves kids brutally killing kids in a battle to the death. It’s cold, dark and dreary and I had no idea how they would maintain that feeling within a PG-13 feature. As it turns out, director Gary Ross was able to take things pretty far in terms of the violence, but I can’t help but wonder if the same material would have earned an R-rating if you cared a bit more about the children that were being slaughtered and if Ross had kept the camera steady rather than erratically whirling it around so as to distort what was actually going on.
For those new to the story, The Hunger Games takes place in the ruins of North America known now as Panem, a future society in which the rich and privileged live upon high (and dress as if they are reviving the ’80s), looking down on the 12 numbered districts below them. These districts represent varied levels of poverty and skills, including miners, farmers, steelworkers and others, all of which provide for those above them. At one point these districts revolted against what is known as The Capitol… they lost. And as a result a yearly tradition began known as “The Hunger Games” in which one teenage boy and girl from each district are selected as “Tributes” to fight in a battle to the death as a reminder of the Capitol’s power.
This is the story of the 74th Hunger Games and at the center of it is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a resident of the poorest of all the districts, District 12, where she is a bit of a loner, often taking to the restricted woods to hunt for squirrels just to have something to trade back at the market to help keep her mother and younger sister in good health. Her best friend is Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whose role in this particular story is extremely limited once the “Tribute” selection is completed.
Known as “The Reaping”, the “Tribute” selection comes to pass and is where Katniss ultimately volunteers to fight after her sister’s name is drawn from the fish bowl. Her male counterpart is the baker’s son, Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson). Per the rules, only one or neither of these two combatants will ever return to District 12 alive.
“The Hunger Games” are treated as just that, games, they are televised in the Capitol and all 12 Districts as people look on, the members of the Capitol cheering along the way and members of each District looking on in sadness as their children are murdered for the satisfaction of the oppressive government. This is actually the one part of The Hunger Games that hits home the hardest, the sense of community among the districts and their repressed desire to revolt and attain freedom from under the Capitol’s thumb. Twice in the film a hand gesture is made in which three fingers are held up in solidarity and it served as the only two times I felt any level of emotion or connection to the characters and their plight.
This isn’t to say I didn’t like the rest of The Hunger Games. In fact I enjoyed it on most every level, but more as a piece of entertainment to watch once, and not as something that moved me to discuss and explore it beyond that first viewing. Clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours it moves very quickly, never remaining on one point too long and the casting, particularly in the supporting roles, is excellent.
Elizabeth Banks is hardly recognizable as Effie Trinket, the District 12 escort that leads the Reaping ceremony and guides Katniss and Peeta through the Capitol with a complete sense of detachment, focused on the pleasures of a nice dessert and completely unaware that the two teenagers with her will soon, most likely, be dead. And Woody Harrelson is perfect as Haymitch Abernathy, District 12 winner of the 50th Hunger Games, who is along to serve as Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, giving them advice on how to survive.
However, while introduced as a drunken mess, what’s missing is why Haymitch is the way he is. It’s a perfect example of how audience members that read the book will have a leg up on those that didn’t. Haymitch’s background is largely unexplored and while it may be easy enough for many to understand why he is the way he is, any kind of real connection to the character and most of the characters for that matter, is only a surface level introduction, which is more than enough to make for an entertaining film, but not enough to become fully invested.
Stanley Tucci as “Hunger Games” master of ceremonies Caesar Flickman is perfect and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, a Hunger Games stylist, adds a little heart to Katniss’s preparation for battle. It’s impossible to point a finger at any of the members of the cast and say they didn’t fulfill their duties and Lawrence in the lead is just as good, presenting a strong-willed combatant, as well as those small moments you can see glimmers of her inspiring what is to come over the course of the next two films. Or that’s just me, once again reading into things having read the books.
Visually, Ross paints the film with harsh grey tones, washing a lot of the color out of most scenes, which contrasts well with the bright colors of the Capitol and the greens of the Hunger Games arena. I do wish he hadn’t been so interested in using handheld camerawork as the film is often marred with a shaky image, which is noticeable early in an opening montage introducing life in District 12 where it was so helter-skelter it almost appeared the cameraman was slipping on ice while filming. I understand this is meant to give the audience a sense of “being there” but it felt as if I was having a seizure.
The visual effects were also a bit disappointing, particularly a moment where Katniss’s dress is meant to simulate fire and other moments of CG landscape that really stood out not for their quality, but for their lack of realism. This, however, also presents a chance to make another point. The effects aren’t as important as the story, and if anything, The Hunger Games proves you don’t need to spend $250 million on special effects as long as you have a good story.
The Hunger Games will certainly play better to audiences that have read the books. Gaps in character back-story can be filled in where the film is lacking. Yet, things will begin to fall into place with future installments and as a complete trilogy of films The Hunger Games could prove to be the start of something big, laying the groundwork for a fantastic franchise. One thing is for certain, even though this film runs for 142 minutes, I just as easily could have sat through another 142 minutes where I anticipate the political aspects of the story will begin to take hold and will hopefully give me reason to return to The Hunger Games as the first piece of a grander puzzle.
If anything, be sure to see The Hunger Games now as things should only get better in the future.