With the phenomenal success of book-to-screen adaptations such as the Harry Potter children’s series, or the romantic themed Twilight novels, Hollywood continues to mine publishing companies for properties that may make the next big movie franchise. Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel The Hunger Games falls somewhere in between those two juggernauts – a sci-fi futuristic tale where teens brutally slaughter each other in a government sanctioned “reality show”. Some genre fans may see Collins’ work as a copycat of Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale, which was successfully adapted into a cult Japanese feature, but the truth of the matter is, the premise of teens forced to die in a contest is nothing new. Stephen King’s 1979 novel The Long Walk featured a similar story set in a contemporary alternate United States and the novelist, writing both times as Richard Bachman, explored life or death “reality TV” in The Running Man a few years later. Since its 2008 publication, The Hunger Games was quickly followed by two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, effectively establishing a trilogy. The lead character, Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl living in the post-apocalyptic country of Panem, who volunteers to participate in the televised annual contest in place of her much younger sister quickly became one of modern literature’s most popular heroines.
When I first heard that Lionsgate Entertainment, the studio behind such releases as the Saw horror series and all of Tyler Perry’s films, had purchased the rights to The Hunger Games novels, my knee jerk reaction was, “here we go again.” Lionsgate recently purchased Summit Entertainment, the producers of The Twilight Saga, a series which despite it’s popularity in print and on the silver screen, has been condemned by most film critics as a soulless soap opera. I feared the same would happen with The Hunger Games until it was announced that Gary Ross had signed up to direct. Ross seemed to be an unlikely choice to helm a sci-fi epic that was planned to be the start of a new movie franchise. The writer of such films as Big & Dave and director of Pleasantville & Seabiscuit, had a talent for fashioning more human and intimate stories. Yet when you get down to it, that’s exactly what The Hunger Games is. Yes, it is an action piece, with thrilling and often nail-biting moments featuring a hero (or in this case heroine) in trouble, but more importantly, its about people, and how in an effort to evolve and save itself from destruction, society has turned towards more barbaric methods.
Jennifer Lawrence is one of those bright young faces who has the talent to back up her incredibly beautiful features. If any actor has been perfectly cast for a role in the last year it’s Lawrence as Katniss, who not only projects great strength and willful determination, but conquers the difficult task of making her character sympathetic and easily accessible. A native of the poor mining town of the twelfth district in the city of Panen, Katniss takes her place in line for the annual “reaping” where one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts are chosen to participate in the games. Though she is only sixteen, Katniss is practically the head of a household which consists of younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) and their mother (Paula Malcolmson), who has been emotionally shattered since the death of their father in a mining accident years earlier. When Prim’s name is chosen in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place and along with schoolmate Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), is immediately whisked away to the Capitol.
The games were created as a reminder to the 12 districts of the Capitol’s power, after a rebellion nearly a century earlier led to the destruction of the 13th district. Twenty-four teens or “Tributes” enter the arena, only one comes out and though Katniss has the advantage of already being an experienced hunter, there are other Tributes who have been training for this event their entire lives. For many, it is considered an honor to participate in the games whether those who play live or die. While illegally hunting deer for food has made Katniss a skilled archer, Peeta, a baker’s son who once took pity on her by giving her unused bread, has no skills at all. Under the supervision of rather eccentric Capitol escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) the two are paired with former Tribute Haymitch Abernathy, who after winning the games two decades earlier was thrust into a life of fame, privilege and subsequently, alcoholism. Haymitch understands that a Tribute can not win the games on skills alone; you have to win the crowd and establish enough popularity so that “sponsors” and fans can send “gifts” which can often mean the difference between life and death. Tributes must not only contend with the threat of each other, but factors such as starvation, dehydration and even infection. Along with the pair’s “stylist” Cinna (an impressive Lenny Kravitz) Haymitch promotes Katniss and Peeta as star-crossed lovers which works as a ploy to establish popularity with the masses. For Peeta however, its no ploy since he has secretly loved Katniss from afar since they were children.
In the hands of director Gary Ross, the story of The Hunger Games is treated respectfully, establishing a serious tone early on and even a sense of dread in this dystopian future. Working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Collins and Billy Ray, Ross doesn’t treat the material like an action/adventure movie, it is very much a character piece told in a realistic fashion similar to Christopher Nolan’s approach to the iconic Batman. This is a world gone wrong despite its attempt to establish a new order to keep the peace and to keep society in line. The casualties are not just children, but their parents and the sense of loss in their respective communities. The first act of the film mainly focuses on the political aspects of this world, featuring memorable performances from Banks, as Trinket, a devotee who clearly “drank the Kool-Aid”, Stanley Tucci as flamboyant TV host Caesar Flickerman and Wes Bentley as “Game Maker” Seneca, who controls the players on the chess board, but is incapable of handling the unpredictable. If there were one grand master behind this barbaric scheme it would be Donald Sutherland as Capital President Snow, playing the familiar role of the heavy who hopes to keep the little people in line and will cut off heads at the first sign of rebellion or change.
The film doesn’t truly hit its stride until the Tributes are dropped into the arena, a varied stretch of wilderness in the former Rocky Mountains, where many are slain upon their arrival. Despite the film’s PG-13 rating, Ross shows no restraint when it comes to the brutality the teens inflict upon one another, but he doesn’t sensationalize it either. Suggested violence is more powerful than witnessing the visceral details. Lawrence spend most of her time in the arena sequences alone, yet the actress not only gives another compelling and nuanced performance, but has a stillness most performers her age lack. Her chemistry with Hutcherson is questionable at times, but then again the manner in which their characters slowly bond over the course of the picture is believable. Harrelson once again proves what a magnificent actor he’s become over the last two decades, showing the weariness of a man who is tired of sending young teens to their deaths, yet often expressing enthusiasm for Lawrence’s tenacity, especially when the chance she could survive grows stronger.
On more than one occasion there are predictable plot turns and even developments where audience members might find themselves slightly confused. One sequence where Seneca and his control room minions shower Katniss with fireballs and burning tree limbs, just to keep her from venturing too close to the outer rim of the arena, feels forced. Another, where they release wild animals on the Tributes, may have some questioning whether these are real creatures or holographic creations. These are only minor flaws, because what Ross does for The Hunger Games is effectively lay the groundwork for a much larger story to be continued in two additional films. Unlike most film franchises these days, the follow-up stories are already written and I look forward to seeing how Ross and his cast step up to the challenge as the saga expands and the characters evolve. All good things come to those who wait and though Catching Fire is set to open Fall of next year, the wait looks to be a good one.