The Hunger Games
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Gary Ross
3 out of 5
Sourced from a series of popular teen-lit novels by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games could have easily succumbed to the wretched excess and brain-dead nothingness of the Twilight franchise.
Fortunately, at about 20 minutes in, director Gary Ross’ adaptation makes it clear that consideration was procured for its cinematic crossover, affording depth rather than the expense of a cashed-in afterthought.
Stretched across a two and a half hour span, the film’s alternative universe begins in District 12, a rural, working-poor slum that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) calls home.
Consciously or not, the texture and dankness of the backwater setting echoes Lawrence’s Oscar nominated role in Winter’s Bone, complete with shaky cam, bedraggled locales and the image of Katniss mothering her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) in the surrounding decay.
Despite some significant ho-hum clichés of Hollywood’s ubiquitous grasp, the sense that director Ross has a lean vision for his fantastical setting (fastened in real-world plight) makes for a credible thrust of high-concept duality between entertainment and creativity.
With most of North America obliterated, the land of Panem still remains, governed by an opulent totalitarian regime situated in the “Capitol.”
Every year, the “powers that be” (headed by a sinister, and always superb, Donald Sutherland) summon one boy and girl from each of the 12 districts to compete as “tributes” in a gladiatorial clash of death.
When young Prim’s name is called to lead, Katniss nobly takes her place, partnered with the male tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a physically fit but weak-willed bread-boy, seemingly naive for survival.
Relying on her archer instincts and the mentorship of a drunken former Hunger Games victor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson sporting a blonde, Kurt Cobain wig), Katniss is literally throw into a war-torn hell where fate and fatality tango.
When stripped from its phenomenal popularity, The Hunger Games basically boils down to familiar storytelling. Apart from the obvious comparison to Kinji Fukasaku’s bloodsoaked cult piece Battle Royale, one can point out borrowings from the lovable ‘80s cheese of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man, Peter Weir’s prophetic The Truman Show, and even scrapings of Goosebumps, a televised teenage horror program of the 1990s.
It helps that both Ross and author Suzanne Collins penned the screenplay together. The content is thematically dark, and its allegorical elements are finely executed, highlighting the way in which the televised ‘games’ critique today’s obsession with reality entertainment.
The depicted on-air bloodbath represents the Capitol’s twisted idea of cultural normality, disturbingly serving as a timely and effective parable of today’s perverse couch potato comfort.
Oddly, my favourite parts of the film have nothing to do with its carnage or combat, but rather Philip Messina’s production design. Impressive in creating bold set-pieces and corrupt decadence, The Hunger Games’ off kilter look comes personified in Stanley Tucci’s role as Panem’s televised host, Cesar Flickerman.
Channeling the Joker and a pill popping Jay Leno, he interviews each challenger before battle, embodying the film’s eccentric style in an arena akin to American Idol.
Like any movie of this magnitude, there are portions to nit-pick. The climax is forced, and the life-saving plot devices are contrived, but it’s tolerable because Ross commendably pushes the film as far as it can go.
While it’s not art, there’s something encouraging about a well-executed adaptation of pop fiction that plays to the fans as well as the uninitiated.