The Hunger Games
Directed by Gary Ross
Screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
How long is The Hunger Games? 142 minutes.
What is The Hunger Games rated? PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.
It’s everything you’ve been waiting for.
One thing’s for certain: you don’t want to live in the world of The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’s trilogy presents a future America that’s as bleak as it is plausible. A world in which the government’s efforts to contain an unruly populace include sacrificing 23 children a year. A place where those who dare to speak their minds have their treasonous tongues cut out of their heads. This is an America in which the very rich and extremely powerful enjoy an unsteady reign over a poverty-stricken population that struggles to stay alive. This is the world of The Hunger Games, and like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or Brave New World, it is absolutely terrifying in its familiarity.
Gary Ross’s film is based on the first of three young adult novels that are fast, well written, and smart. Fans have towering expectations for the movie, and luckily it hits all the notes we’ve been waiting for. The books and movie follow sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a resident of coal mining District 12, in the country of Panem. Katniss is effectively mother to her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields), and spends her free time hunting illegally in the woods with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Katniss, unlike simpering Bella Swan, is a certified badass. Watching her hunt is hypnotic – and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they fashioned beauty from her coaxing a deer out of hiding.
Once a year, explains a title sequence at the beginning of the film, a kind of gladiatorial pageant takes place in Panem. To quell a potential uprising, the government takes two children between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district and forces them into an arena where they fight to the death. Every citizen of Panem is forced to watch this death game. As mandated, Katniss and the rest of District 12 gather in their Sunday best for the Reaping, the ceremony in which the names are drawn (the concept is like something out of a Shirley Jackson novel). Whose is the first name to be drawn? Even though she’s only in the running once, it’s Prim, of course. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place – which is the first step in her unexpected, clumsy journey to leading a revolution.
The government, headed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), frames the Hunger Games as something to which people should look forward; according to the powerful it is an honor for children to die for their district. Thus the propaganda film (which sounds oddly, frighteningly biblical) calls the sacrificial lambs Tributes. The second Tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who once threw Katniss a loaf of burned bread to keep her from starving. The two of them board a bullet train to the Capitol, a glimmering oasis of wealth and decadence, to be treated like superstars while they prepare to brutally murder their peers.
In the Capitol, they meet their mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former winner of the Games and a drunken louse. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is a kind of liaison between the Capitol and District 12, an eccentric and bizarre creature hidden beneath layers of makeup and brightly colored clothing favored by the citizens of the Capitol. Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, decked out in a Who-from-Whoville pompadour of blue hair) is the announcer and host, the face of the Games; Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) is the man behind the scenes, the great designer. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) is the District 12 Tributes’ stylist/strategist, a guardian angel who helps them make an impression.
Katniss narrates the books, and making a film from a novel written in the first person is a daunting task. The filmmakers do a brilliant job of conveying the vast difference between poverty-stricken District 12 and the wealthy, decadent Capitol. Katniss is stunned by the abundance of food and space, the gleaming metallic surfaces of the Capitol; it is unlike anything she’s ever seen before. What we see is akin to an episode of “Cribs” – we value and encourage this kind of decadence in our celebrities. The film portrays this well, in lingering shots of both the Districts and the Capitol. Lawrence, likewise, expresses subtle emotions while remaining outwardly stone-faced.
The actual Hunger Games don’t start until well into the film. There’s a lot of storytelling to get out of the way, a lot of buildup, but never does it feel slow or forced. The suspense builds to bursting as Katniss and Peeta mold themselves to give ‘em a show, and just when you’re ready to explode the film enters the arena. The Games themselves are as brutal as you’d expect. They are, after all, teenagers stabbing, slicing, crushing, and shooting each other. There are a few kinds of Tributes: the cunning and ingenuous, like Fox Face (Jacqueline Emerson) and Rue (Amandla Stenberg); the strategic and talented, like Peeta and Katniss; and the Careers. Careers train daily until they’re 18, just biding their time until they’re given the chance to “honor their districts.” Careers Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Marvel (Jack Quaid), and Glimmer (Leven Rambin) form a deadly alliance and it’s left to the rest of the Tributes to avoid them.
Katniss and Peeta pretend to fall in love because that’s what the audience wants, and what the audience wants is integral to survival, because the rich can pay to send gifts to those in the Games – medicine, food, ointments. The arena itself is a computer-controlled nature preserve where the gamemakers can employ lethal tactics to murder the children or force them to murder each other. All of these things are artfully explained by cutting away from the arena and onto Caesar Flickerman, our master of ceremonies. Tucci’s toothy grin is both engaging and disingenuous – his casting is perfect.
The movie doesn’t feature voice-over narration from Katniss; we’re outside of her head, and that leaves more creative legroom to keep up with the rest of the characters. It may feel jarring to some fans to leave the arena so often. Frankly it releases some of the tension, though, to cut to Seneca and President Snow, or Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith. All of the performances are spot-on. At 20, Jennifer Lawrence has an earnest maternal quality; she was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for Winter’s Bone, another movie in which she played surrogate mother to her siblings. Stanley Tucci is always fantastic. Harrelson plays Haymitch with just the right amount of bitterness and a splash of deliberate funny. Elizabeth Banks, nearly unrecognizable in Effie Trinket’s uniform, is entertainingly strident and out of touch. The makeup, costuming, and special effects are also pitch perfect. Ross and the rest of the crew treat the book with reverence and respect, and the end result is exactly what fans will want.
We’ve seen movies like this before – in 2000, Japan’s Battle Royale took the world by storm with its horrifying portrayal of an entire high school class fighting to the death. The two bear similarities, certainly; however, Battle Royale is a jarring and gory satire of the inherent, petty malevolence of teenagers, while The Hunger Games is a dystopian nightmare that happens to feature a teenage protagonist. (It’s also worth noting that Battle Royale was banned from wide release by the US and UK until just this year, while The Hunger Games is only rated PG-13.) Comparisons are unavoidable, but the two are separate entities.
On opening night, the theater was filled with preteen girls carrying bows and wearing shirts that declare TEAM PEETA or TEAM GALE; you could mistake this fandom for something along the lines of Twilight – there’s giggling at every kiss, every meaningful glance. Bella Swan, though, wouldn’t last two seconds in the Hunger Games without her shimmering savior. Katniss Everdeen is a strong, smart, fast, and cunning protagonist – and this movie is one I’d encourage my hypothetical daughter to see and love for herself. In short, it’s everything you’ve been waiting for, and may well be the best movie of 2012 so far.