Let’s be honest here — The Hunger Games is no literary masterwork; its dystopian themes and brutal child-on-child violence is derivative of dozens of novels and movies from 1984 to Lord of the Flies to the infamous Japanese teen massacre film Battle Royale. Yet — like Harry Potter and Twilight before it — The Hunger Games has captured the zeitgeist of the hormonal and alienated youth of America through its use of a strong but relatable protagonist, an improbable love sub-plot, and a visceral action set piece with life-and-death stakes. Susanne Collins’ Kindle-friendly unit shifter has fairly obvious themes: violence and war are bad; classism is bad; it’s hard to be an impoverished, under-privileged teenager in a world where the rich and powerful make all the rules,etc.. In many ways, it’s the ultimate 99% vs. the 1% metaphor. But, allegorical critiques aside, the real question is: does any of this make for compelling cinema? Fortunately, despite a cornucopia full of flaws, the answer is yes.
In The Hunger Games universe, A series of natural and man-made Armageddon-level events some point in the future ravaged North America, resulting in the formation of a totalitarian nation known as Panem, who divided the country into 13 “districts.” It didn’t take long for the districts to rebel against their oppressors, but the uprising was swiftly crushed, and an entire district (D-13) was utterly annihilated. “The Hunger Games” — a dystopian “bread & circus” — were then created both as a form of punishment to the survivors, and as a constant reminder to the districts of Panem to never challenge the might or the influence of their government again.
Each year, one boy and one girl from each district are selected from a lottery to compete in the games, which sees the 24 participants dropped into a controlled environment where they must battle to the death until only one remains. Naturally, the protagonist of the story Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is forced to volunteer into the games when her frail and meek little sister Prim is selected. Her discomfort is only magnified when the chosen boy Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has a link to a traumatic event in her past.
The problems start early for The Hunger Games, as it can’t escape the same casting mistakes of other slick, genre teenage fare like Twilight, Percy Jackson, or I Am Number Four. Bland beefcake actors with dimpled chins and too much hair product surround the far more talented and charismatic Jennifer Lawrence like the rocky shards of a dead planet orbiting a shining sun. Lawrence is unquestionably the glimmering, blazing center of the universe here, as she shoulders the heavy burden of the film with grace, strength, beauty, and pure guts. Katniss Everdeen isn’t a lingerie-clad sex doll that who needs heavy machine guns and thigh-high nylons to show how empowered she is, nor is she a blank cipher whose only sense of identity and self-worth is derived from obsessing over a man; she’s a survivor, a strong female character who demonstrates her value by the resolve she maintains in the face of horror and the love she has for her family.
Her only equal on screen is Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta’s boozy mentor Haymitch Abernathy – a former winner of the games from District 12. Harrelson does a great job making the most out of the stale archetype he plays here — namely, the “bitter, gruff, drunken loser who actually turns out be a wise mentor with brilliant strategies’ type. Ol‘ Woody’s still got a devilish twinkle in his eye, infusing every scene he is in with much-needed energy. It’s a small role for the veteran actor — but a pivotal one — as he must hobnob with the upper crust of Panem to secure “sponsors” for Katniss and Peeta (in order to get them much-needed survival supplies in the games). The games themselves play out like a grotesque amalgamation of The Running Man and American Idol , so Haymitch knows that in order to win, he has to get the crowd to fall in love and believe in Katniss – a tactic proven successful from ancient Roman gladiatorial combat to Dancing With The Stars.
Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), and Lenny Kravitz (Cinna) also acquit themselves nicely in their small roles, adding depth and color to the proceedings, but sadly, the same cannot be said for Josh Hutcherson’s turn as Peeta. Already a controversial character in the book, Hutcherson does nothing to alter the perception of Peeta as a clueless, wishy-washy, scheming twerp who is either the sweetest guy on the planet with motivations that are driven purely by a burning love for Katniss, or an obsessive, sulky stalker. It doesn’t help much that he’s a good three or four inches shorter than Jennifer Lawrence, and sports the same aforementioned blonde “dudebro” haircut as many of the film’s frat boy protagonists, either. Still, Hutcherson does just enough to get the audience invested in seeing the pair make it through their ordeal, and is serviceable through the climax.
Visually, The Hunger Games does not have much to brag about. The whole thing feels cheap, and while District 12’s bleakness is well represented, most of the story takes place in a dull forest setting (both natural and manufactured),and look like they were filmed as blandly as possible in some nondescript state campground. Scenes in the Capitol don’t fare much better, as the modest budget only allows for a glimpse at a generic future cityscape in poorly-rendered CGI. It’s apparent that most the finances were funneled into the interiors of the Capitol and the garish, French Revolution-era meets Katy Perry costumes of its denizens. But despite the added bump in production value, these scenes (and these characters) that are supposed to be flush with opulence and grandeur, still manage to feel dull and sterile.
Much has been made of director Gary Ross’s decision to present a large portion of the film’s action sequences in a dizzying array of close-ups, whip-pans, crash edits, and dreaded “shaky-cam” shots. While this is certainly the case at times – the climactic clash on top of the “cornucopia” features some of the most egregious, nausea-inducing camera work I’ve ever witnessed – it doesn’t overwhelm the character work or the narrative strengths of the third act. He’s also come under fire for editing out several of the kills, even going so far as removing blood spatters. Gory or not, it’s never pleasant to see a 12 or 13-year-old child get stabbed or bludgeoned to death, and though the blood may be gone, the message remains.
Ultimately what saves The Hunger Games as a film is the tension and the danger prevalent throughout the titular battle to the death. It’s a nice mix of intense action set pieces, gut-wrenching survival sequences, heartstring-tugging dramatic beats; as well as creative traps, hit-and-run tactics, stealth maneuvering, and cat-and-mouse strategy. By the time the hour of slow, deliberate buildup to the games is over and Katniss is raised up into the arena, Lawrence has the audience in the palm of her hand. The stakes are tremendous, hearts are pumping — We want to see Katniss survive; we want to see her get back to Prim and Gale; we want to see her kill the well-coiffured, sadistic jocks she’s up against; and we want to see these rich, smug bastards with terrible facial hair (I’m lookin’ at you, Wes Bentley) get it thrown back into their faces.
It’s not perfect, but The Hunger Games is a compelling, and enjoyable two-and-a-half hours at the cinema. It has spark, and it certainly has more to say than the intellectually and emotionally vacant Twilight saga. If this film and book series can steer young people away from that pap, the world will be all the better for it.