Hunger Games, The (United States, 2012)

March 20, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hunger Games, The Poster

The Hunger Games comes charging out of the gate with a daunting task: fill the chasm in the fangirl cinematic franchise machine created by the completion of the Harry Potter saga and the impending end to all things Twilight. The Hunger Games cycle is popular with the target "young adult" demographic but lacks the eye-popping sales numbers of either J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. Nevertheless, taken at face value, The Hunger Games represents the best first book adaptation of any of the three series. It surpasses Christopher Columbus' Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone by a whisker and Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight by considerably more than that. The Hunger Games is fast-paced, slickly plotted, and (as with the best science fiction) addresses substantive issues in the subtext. The story contains some cheats and many of the plot elements are borrowed from other sources, but the end result is engrossing. Fans will be delighted. Non-fans should give this movie a chance.

The Hunger Games belongs to the post-apocalyptic genre, with events taking place at an unspecified future date. At some point, North America became known as Panem - a nation divided into 13 districts surrounding a powerful central Capitol. 75 years before the start of the movie, the districts rebelled against the Capitol but the rebellion was crushed. District 13 was destroyed and, as part of the peace settlement, the other twelve districts were forced to participate in "The Hunger Games." Once per year, a lottery is held and two "tributes" (one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18) are sent from each district to a battle-to-the-death gladiatorial struggle that is the biggest televised event across all of Panem. After 23 deaths, the lone survivor is declared the champion.

For the 74th annual Hunger Games, 12-year old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is chosen as the female tribute from District 12. To save her sister from almost certain death, 16-year old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take Primrose's place. She is accompanied on the journey to the Capitol by her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Once there, she trains with Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a bitter drunk who won the games more than 20 years earlier. She receives moral support and image advice from Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lennie Kravitz). Her boldness and showmanship make her an immediate popular favorite - something that angers President Snow (Donald Sutherland) while delighting the game's organizer (Wes Bentley) and the on-air commentator (Stanley Tucci). When the games begin, Katniss uses Haymitch's advice to survive the opening "bloodbath," then pretends to share a romance with Peeta to enhance her image. In the end, however, she develops genuine feelings for him, which become a potential problem since, in order for her to win, he must die.

The Hunger Games mines a wealth of prior sources varying from Greek mythology (Theseus) and Roman history (gladiators) to the Doctor Who 1985 story, "Vengeance on Varos" (broadcasting of violent contests to pacify the masses) and the Star Trek episode, "Amok Time" (best friends fighting to the death). Its closest cousin might well be The Running Man. It's Survivor for the bloodthirsty crowd, with alliances and eliminations, but there are no immunity idols or tribal councils. And the end is more permanent than merely being voted off the island. The Hunger Games is darkly critical of the public's embrace of the violent side of "reality" shows and paints an ugly portrait of human fascination with celebrating the suffering and death of others. The Capitol uses The Hunger Games like a drug to distract the populace from the grimness of everyday life.

The popularity of The Hunger Games with girls is explained by the first-person perspective of a strong female character. (This also helps to explain the otherwise inexplicable popularity of Twilight, but it doesn't extend to Harry Potter.) Katniss is a compelling, relatable individual who, as a result of a superlative performance by Jennifer Lawrence, immediately connects with the audience. Lawrence, with her blonde tresses dyed dark, is the key to the movie working as well as it does. She crafts a character worth rooting for and is easily The Hunger Games' acting standout.

Lawrence's same age co-star is Josh Hutcherson, whose resume includes such diverse fare as The Kids are All Right and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. He doesn't rivet the camera with Lawrence's intensity, but there's a puppy dog likeability to him that captures our affection. In what amounts to a role reversal, he's a capable damsel in distress to Lawrence's heroic knight errant. The secondary cast is populated by familiar names: Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland. The Hunger Games has a long way to go, however, to match Harry Potter for density of high-profile actors.

Director Gary Ross is known for choosing his projects carefully. This is only his third directorial outing in 15 years (following Pleasantville and Sea Biscuit). In The Hunger Games, he shows too much fondness for the shaky-cam approach to action scenes, although there is method to his madness. By rendering the most violent sequences incomprehensible, he dilutes their impact. One could make a compelling case that The Hunger Games is bloody enough to deserve an R, but Ross' stylistic approach limits the disturbing aspects sufficiently to slide the movie under the PG-13 limbo bar.

The Hunger Games is an able adaptation of its source material although, of necessity, much of the backstory has been condensed or removed. Viewers are provided sufficient flavor to hint at greater complexity. The lion's work of the scripting was done by the book's author, Suzanne Collins. Unlike J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, she took an active role in shaping how the cinematic version of her world looks and feels. A couple dubious attempts are made at creating pop cultural touchstones. The oft-repeated refrain of "May the odds be ever in your favor" lacks the simple elegance of "May the Force be with you." And there's a four-note "theme" that is vaguely reminiscent of the five-note signature from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

There are times when The Hunger Games takes the easy way out rather than forcing the heroine to face painful moral choices. These instances are forgivable because they, along with the admittedly generic love story, lighten a potentially grim tone. The Hunger Games is effective in generating suspense. We recognize that Katniss is going to survive (other than George R.R. Martin, few authors are comfortable offing their main character), but the tension comes from learning how. Fully half the movie's long 140-minute running time is spent in the games, so we're not cheated of the experience of seeing how the competition develops.

A case has been made that the book The Hunger Games bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1999 novel Battle Royale but regardless of the degree to which Collins did or did not borrow from that source, The Hunger Games has an identity of its own. Though its most bold cultural statements (the pervasive influence of violence as entertainment and the Big Brother power of a totalitarian government in a technological era) are derivative, the fact that a property aimed at "young adults" would make them at all is somewhat remarkable.

A determination has not yet been made whether the other two chapters of The Hunger Games trilogy will be filmed - that will depend largely upon the movie's box office performance (which, at least as of this writing, looks to be impressive). The film does not demand a sequel - the story is self-contained and, although there are "hooks" that could connect this to another installment, The Hunger Games can exist comfortably in a vacuum. It should not be lumped into the same category as Twilight. Such a connection is vaguely insulting since The Hunger Games is unquestionably superior. This is sophisticated entertainment with a broad-based appeal.

Hunger Games, The (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2012-03-23
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1