Film Review: “The Hunger Games”

by Jason LeRoy on March 23, 2012

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in THE HUNGER GAMES

starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Alexander Ludwig, Toby Jones, Isabelle Fuhrman

written by: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray

directed by: Gary Ross

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens

I came to the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ insanely popular The Hunger Games novel as a reluctant novice. As I tend to do with most ubiquitous mainstream cultural sensations, I instinctively avoided it for as long as I could; I assumed that it would be the latest in a series of (coincidentally female-written) runaway young adult bestsellers I didn’t care about that became runaway young adult blockbusters I didn’t care about, such as the Twilight and Harry Potter series. While I was all too familiar with the character names due to the breathless media coverage of every last casting detail (“What the fuck kind of names are these?” – me for the last year), I was largely ignorant of the story details. And at least in terms of the film, let me just say: I was wrong, and I get it now.

For the unfamiliar: the setting is a post-apocalyptic North America, now called Panem. It consists of an extremely wealthy and powerful metropolis known as the Capitol, and twelve impoverished surrounding Districts. Nearly a century ago, the Districts attempted an unsuccessful uprising against the Capitol; as a punishment, the Capitol instituted an annual practice known as the Hunger Games, in which one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected by lottery from each District, and then forced to battle each other in an outdoor arena until only one is left alive. These contestants are known as “tributes.” The games are spun by the Capitol to suggest the honor and gallantry of the Olympics, as well as a form of reconciliation between the Capitol and the Districts; but really, they are a form of intimidation and control, giving the District dwellers a bogus sense of manufactured hope to keep them submissive.

As the tributes for the 74th annual Hunger Games are about to be announced, we meet our heroine, Katniss (the excellent Jennifer Lawrence, in a role that recalls her Oscar-nominated work in Winter’s Bone), a 16-year-old girl from District 12, which sits on the former Appalachia. Katniss is a tough and resourceful girl who has been forced to grow up very quickly; when her father died in a coal-mining accident and her mother was frequently overwhelmed by grief and depression, Katniss became the provider for herself and her younger sister, Primrose. Her bow and arrow skills are expert, as she is frequently called upon to hunt game in the woods (foreshadowing!).

When the day comes for District 12 coordinator Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, whom you think is some kind of fucking lunatic until you see the rest of the people from the Capitol; the styling suggests Eurotrash by way of Harajuku) to draw names for the Games, she calls on Primrose to be the girl tribute. But rather than watch her fragile little sister march to her inevitable demise, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The boy tribute is revealed as Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a less-than-strapping little guy who once gave Katniss bread when her family was starving. After they’ve said painfully quick goodbyes to their families, Katniss and Peeta are shipped off to the Capitol to live in luxury with the other 22 tributes as they go through a training and publicity blitz before the Games begin.

This is when several of the film’s most powerful elements begin to converge. On the one hand, there is the commentary on reality television and celebrity culture; the Hunger Games are broadcast throughout Panem with all the pageantry of American Idol. Each tribute is professionally styled and then interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (played by Stanley Tucci as a blue-haired riff on Ryan Seacrest and Andy Cohen), who mines them for salient human-interest details that will make them more entertaining. Katniss is too backwoods and rough-around-the-edges for her own good, and is coached by Peeta on the importance of being likable; if viewers like her, they will send much-needed gifts into the arena for her once the games begin.

The other remarkable thing about The Hunger Games is how ably it communicates the morbid gravity of its scenario. It is never lost on us, not for a moment, that 23 of these 24 children are expected to be murdered by each other by the time the game has concluded. This makes the glitzy pomp and circumstance that precede the Games feel remarkably perverse, like the proverbial fattening of the Thanksgiving turkey. In only his third directorial effort following the worlds-removed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, Gary Ross masterfully cultivates an understated tone here; he keeps the camera style loose and shaky, which anchors the story in much-needed realism to prevent it from coming across as fantasy. The score is minimalistic, elevating the suspense; we are vividly aware throughout that nothing less than life and death are at stake. Ross also succeeds at preventing the material from lapsing into sentimentality, largely avoiding the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth, whose role won’t expand until the second film).

On the subject of the violence, many have expressed concern that the PG-13 rating would significantly water down certain events from the book. While I have not read the book, I can’t imagine that reading Collins’ description of the massacre that occurs when the tributes first enter the arena could be much more shocking than what is shown in the film; there is nothing gratuitous, but Ross expertly uses quick cuts and tight edits to tell us everything we need to know about what is unfolding. Specifically, we learn that merciless alpha dog Cato (muscle twink Alexander Ludwig) is, to use the parlance of reality TV, not here to make friends. I found myself reflecting on how much Top Chef would be improved if each season began with a massacre of half its contestants. Talk about “Pack your knives and go.”

Ross’ adaptation is not without its weaknesses. While the film’s first half is just about impeccable, it begins to lose steam in its second half. Several key moments during the Games are not as powerful as they should be, and the denouement feels rushed enough to suggest a montage; it all feels a bit anticlimactic, to the point where my first thought when the screen went black was, “That’s it?” Some of the dialogue has an amateurish young adult sound to it, and the characters of Effie and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) feel broad to the point of caricature. But the achievement of The Hunger Games – telling a story that explicitly deals with subjects like class, wealth, and power in a way that is palatable to mainstream audiences – is a significant one. Penn Badgley recently provoked some snark by suggesting that The Hunger Games works as a metaphor for Occupy Wall Street, but I mean, yeah, it totally does. This is incredibly topical art, especially in an election year in which the GOP unapologetically defends the wealthiest 1% as “job creators” deserving of our gratitude, regardless of their abuses. In a culture where the phrase “class warfare” is bandied about as a matter of political rhetoric, The Hunger Games comes as a clarion call. In short, it made a believer out of me.

The Hunger Games opens nationwide today.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Faggy Gaychanel March 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm

BATTLE ROYAL!!!!
MUPPETS!!!
WHERE IS TINA TURNER WHEN YOU NEED HER?????

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