US Release Date: 03-23-2012
Directed by: Gary Ross
- Jennifer Lawrence, as
- Katniss Everdeen
- Josh Hutcherson, as
- Peeta Mellark
- Liam Hemsworth, as
- Gale Hawthorne
- Woody Harrelson, as
- Haymitch Abernathy
- Elizabeth Banks, as
- Effie Trinket
- Lenny Kravitz, as
- Wes Bentley, as
- Seneca Crane
- Stanley Tucci, as
- Caesar Flickerman
- Donald Sutherland, as
- President Snow
- Toby Jones, as
- Claudius Tempesmith
- Alexander Ludwig, as
- Isabelle Fuhrman, as
- Amandla Stenberg, as
- Dayo Okeniyi, as
- Leven Rambin, as
- Jack Quaid, as
- Willow Shields, as
- Primrose Everdeen
- Paula Malcomson as
- Katniss' Mother
Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.
There's always pressure when turning a beloved and popular book like The Hunger Games into a movie. While the built-in fanbase guarantees a huge opening weekend, without decent word of mouth to carry over into mainstream audiences, a studio could end up with a flop on their hands. Although that isn't always the case as with The Twilight series, which are completely horrible and still make bucketloads of money. Happily, The Hunger Games is not only faithful enough to the book to make its fans happy, but is also entertaining enough on its own to please newcomers to the franchise.
The books, by Suzanne Collins, are marketed as Young Adult novels, but they're so damn entertaining, they can be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates a good story. I breezed through all three books in about a week, with portions of them being hard to put down. Sure, you can tell some of it is aimed at young girls, with sex being completely absent, despite featuring a cast of teenagers with raging hormones. At the same time though, the story doesn't shy away from violence and characters do die.
The story is set in the future remains of North America, now known as Panem. It's a country divided into 12 districts surrounding the Capital. 74 years before the movie starts, the districts staged an unsuccessful revolution. After putting the rebellion down, the Capital decreed that to mark the anniversary of the failed revolt, every district would send two children (one boy, one girl), drawn by lottery, to participate in a fight to the death in an arena devised by the Capital Gamemakers. The fight is streamed to all the districts and presented like a reality television show, only one that takes the term "survivor" quite literally.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, the female tribute from District 12. Her father was killed in a mine explosion when she was young and she's become the responsible one in the family, raising her younger sister after her mother fell into depression. She's headstrong and capable and the master of her favorite hunting weapon, the bow and arrow. When her kid sister's name is drawn in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The story follows her from her entry right through to the climax of the games, and although the ending won't come as a complete surprise, there are some twists and turns along the way.
The cast is mostly good. Lawrence is terrific in the lead, holding the more outlandish elements together. Despite looking nothing like I imagined he would, Harrelson is good as Katniss' drunken mentor, Haymitch. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, the male tribute from District 12, fares least well. He's fairly dull in the role, although this is partly due to the way he is written.
For a sure to be blockbuster, the budget was kept fairly low, coming in under $100 million, which is what passes for low these days. In some ways this works in the movie's favor, keeping the focus on the characters rather than the special effects. There's also quite a lot of handheld shaky camera work that becomes annoying and which may have been done to hide some of the rough edges. Sure, with more money they could have played up the look of the capital and some of the effects and costumes could have been done a little better, but that would only have added to the 2 and a half hour running time or taken the focus off of Lawrence, which is where it belongs.
The writers did a good job adapting the story, altering and trimming plotlines to keep things moving while throwing in little references that only readers of the book will notice. Hopefully they will keep the same creative team together for the rest of the trilogy. They managed the translation from page to screen quite nicely. Fans of the books and those new to the story should both be pleased and entertained.
Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.
I have not read any of the books in the popular series this movie is based on. This most likely played a factor in my level of enjoyment of it. I found The Hunger Games to be much less entertaining than my brother did. It has its moments but what I was expecting to be a clever satire on reality shows as well as an action-packed cinematic experience, turns out to be a disappointment as both.
The story gets off to a slow start. Clearly Katniss lives in a poor district but the movie overdoes her poor "coalminer's daughter" life. There is so much focus on her comforting her terrified little sister that it is absolutely no surprise when the little girl's name is drawn. Since they telegraphed this plot point from the very beginning they should have skimmed over it a bit faster.
Once Kat and Peeta finally arrive at the capitol the movie improves. Stanley Tucci is memorable as the unctuous television host with blue hair, asking those predictably banal questions that always seem to begin with, “How did you feel when...?” The scene where he first interviews Katniss is the sharpest satiric point of the movie.
I do agree with Scott about Jennifer Lawrence. She rises above the material and brings a believable veracity to Katniss. Her career should go on to better things. Elizabeth Banks is also deserving of a mention as the perky pink-loving personal representative of District 12 (see photo).
The details of the politics of this futuristic world are left purposely vague. All we are told is that a totalitarian regime runs the country (and the annual Hunger Games) and that some of the districts are kept poorer than others.
There is really never any question of just who will survive, and which characters, by the simple process of elimination, cannot. The other contestants are separated into two categories. These consist of the evil kids that seem to take pleasure in killing, and the unimportant peripheral ones that get a scene or two but don't get enough screen time to impact us emotionally when they die (there is one notable exception to this rule). The foregone outcome of the games removes any real sense of danger from the movie.
The Hunger Games, therefore, never rises above B-movie level. And it commits one of my modern-movie pet-peeves with the shaky camera work. Most annoyingly in the scene where the Hunger Games proper begin. It's difficult to see what's going on and the jarring camera movement nearly ruins what should have been a shocking and memorable screen moment. The Hunger Games takes an interesting premise but manages only a so-so execution of it.
Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games is an interesting, however unoriginal, idea. Have we not seen similar premises in The Running Man (1987), in which a wrongly convicted prisoner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has to survive a deadly reality game show? Or how about Death Race (2008), in which Jason Statham, another unjustly sentenced prisoner, must compete in a brutal televised car race where competitors get killed for the viewers enjoyment?
Katniss is likewise a prisoner. She lives in a district surrounded by electrical fences. Even though she is able to sneak through a hole in the fence to hunt in another district, her prison is extremely sound. This is best demonstrated by the fact that this dystopian government demands that once every year each district willingly send one boy and one girl to participate in a televised fight to the death, and not one citizen is ever shown objecting to this arrangement. Like the Nazis marching Jews to a gas chamber, these Panem citizens accept their lot with barely a protest.
The Hunger Games is loaded with political overtones. The have nots, represented mostly by district 12, seem very complacent to the annual slaughter. Like taking a beloved cow to the butcher, they do not look forward to it but accept it as a way of life because the government has made it law. The haves, district 1, train their children in case they are chosen. Consequently the pro-active haves win more often than the complacent have-nots.
The Hunger Games is most clearly a political allegory when we look at the Capitol of Panem. It is populated by a bunch of people overly distracted by meaningless materialism such as fashion and hairstyles. This obtuse 1% is glaringly unconcerned with the hardships of the 99%.
We live in a world of war, starvation and dictatorships but some of the highest rated shows on television are such banal offerings as "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" and any number of shows about fashion design. And those are just the tip of all the "reality" shows distracting us from the real world. As Patrick pointed out, The Hunger Games is not a clever satire on reality shows, but it did remind me a bit of "American Idol", which is technically a singing competition, but winning has as much to do with likability as it does with hitting the right notes.
The Hunger Games presents Katniss as an unlikely catalyst for political change. By showing empathy for the young girl in the game, who is essentially her opponent, Katniss created sympathy from the viewers. When she and Peeta express their feelings for each other they became more than just competitors. They became real people. Katniss's unselfish act and ability to love in the face of danger caused a stir in the population. This film only hints at the ripples she has caused. Look at the final scene with the President. He understands what has just happened and where it could lead.
I agree with Scott that a larger budget could have improved the production value a bit, and since The Hunger Games is such a box office hit, the sequel no doubt will. No matter what the budget, the story has layers. As you have just read, I enjoyed the political angle. A liberal could point to the class differences with a knowing smile. A conservative could use this to show just how intrusive a government can become, if allowed. Either way, it is a world I will eagerly visit again.
Photos © Copyright Lionsgate (2012)