Gary Ross is a brave man. He’d need to be, of course, to take on a project like The Hunger Games: the books have sold millions of copies, and have attracted both intense adulation and fierce criticism. The movie is a big deal, and the weight of its success or failure sits on his shoulders, so just making it requires courage.
But Ross has done more than churn out a faithful adaptation of the book. His vision of the world of The Hunger Games is bigger, scarier, darker, and more political than the books ever dared to be.
Thanks to the insane popularity of The Hunger Games trilogy (and an aggressive publicity campaign) you probably already know the basic premise of the film: in a post-apocalyptic world, each of the newly established Districts must offer up two ‘Tributes’ – one boy and one girl – to fight to the death in a televised tournament known as the Hunger Games.
Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen, a girl from the underprivileged District 12, who volunteered to take her baby sister’s place in the Games. To win, Katniss will need more than just raw survival skills and a killer instinct – she’ll need to win over the viewers, who can bet on Tributes and even send potentially life-saving gifts to their favourites.
Built into that premise are several inherent criticisms of the world we live in; most clearly, of capitalism, and using people in other countries to do labour for us to support our lifestyle, and of the media, using violence as entertainment. Like all dystopian fiction, The Hunger Games takes existing situations and extrapolates a possible future from them, creating a kind of warning about what could possibly happen, maybe, if things go on the way they are.
The books are all written in the first person, letting us see the world only from Katniss’s perspective. The film opens up that world, letting us see what’s going on behind the scenes. That allows us more insight into other characters, and also makes the book’s political message more explicit. In a new scene in which Panem’s president talks about visiting the outlying Districts, parallels are drawn between the politics of their world and ours that are far from subtle. The Hunger Games wants us to question ourselves, and look at the consequences of our own lives – the points it makes may not be particularly original, but they feel revolutionary when they pop up in a movie this mainstream.
Of course, if all that sounds a bit much, you could just enjoy The Hunger Games for the dazzling, fun, fast-paced action movie that it is. Around seven seconds were cut from the UK release of the film, removing some gore that the BBFC considered inappropriate for a film rated 12A, but there’s no getting around the fact that the Games are brutal. Ross doesn’t mess about: we’re introduced to characters knowing full well we’re about to watch them die, horribly.
The film’s best scenes come in the first reel, as the tension of the approaching Games becomes palpable. Ross’s constantly moving camera and brilliant use of sound really conveys the fear and disorientation the characters are feeling. The last seconds before the Tributes are put into the arena are almost unbearable.
A lot of that comes down to the acting, too. Every actor has clearly been chosen with care and attention, and that really shows onscreen – most notably, in the casting of Katniss herself. Just like in the books, Katniss is the heart of the story, and Jennifer Lawrence’s ridiculously expressive face helps make her an engaging heroine. She’s strong, capable, and absolutely does not take any bullshit from anyone, but there’s vulnerability in her, too. Because we’re not privy to Katniss’s internal monologue in the film, it’s difficult to know what she’s thinking or feeling at any given moment, and because everything moves so fast, sometimes the impact of what’s going on gets lost. Lawrence’s performance goes a long way towards holding together scenes that otherwise wouldn’t work at all.
Really, the cast is so packed with great character actors that it’s difficult to pick anyone else out for any particular praise without it feeling a bit unfair, but Donald Sutherland is brilliantly creepy, and any time Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson are on the screen is great fun.
Maybe the film’s real pleasure, though, is its world-building. Though we only get brief glimpses of some of the Districts, it’s enough to suggest a believable universe exists beyond the edges of the screen. And the Capitol itself, the rotten heart of the country, is brilliantly realised. It’s excessive, decadent, obnoxious: everything is brightly coloured and shiny and over the top in a way that clearly signals that this is a bad, bad place. Every extra is clad in a kind of cybergoth/haute couture mashup that’s all bright neon and crazy silhouettes, so outlandishly glamorous it becomes almost threatening. Ross has created exactly the world he needed. It’s weird, definitely, but not so weird that it’s unrecognisable.
Sadly, the film’s ambition doesn’t always pay off. Despite all the cleverness and spectacle, some things don’t quite add up, and several plot developments aren’t really explained properly. For instance, future instalments are going to have some explaining to do, and quickly, to make sure some of the story’s most important motifs don’t get lost.
The much touted love triangle is another thing that doesn’t really work, because the film doesn’t make it clear what Katniss’s relationship with Gale is, nor does it spend enough time developing her uneasy relationship with fellow Tribute, Peeta. The film’s breakneck pace falters towards the end as well. Time inside the Games warps and bends, so poignant moments stretch out forever, while whole days pass in the blink of an eye. The book spent a lot of time detailing the Tributes’ struggles to find food and shelter and generally keep themselves alive, but in the film it all comes a little too easily.
It’s tough to criticise a 142 minute film for not spending enough time on things, though, and for everything it gets wrong, it gets half a dozen other things right. The Hunger Games may not be a perfect film, but it’s certainly an admirable, strong piece of cinema.
You couldn’t ask for a braver teen movie than this.