Sigh... I wished I'd gotten to reading the books before this movie came out. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay, have been touted as the latest YA literary sensation after Harry Potter and Twilight, and after the latter, it couldn't have happened to a better title - if for no other reason than that its teenage heroine is a far more admirable character than Bella Friggin' Swan, and its anti-authoritarian and social justice themes are far more relevant than how important it is to have a really really hot boyfriend. But what it really takes to become a "YA literary sensation" is, of course, a Hollywood movie adaptation - and in this case, a wildly successful one, that scored the third best U.S. opening weekend box-office of all time. So of course I wanted to read the novels
I'll probably read 'em anyway. But I thought the movie was pretty good, if not quite great.
In a future America now known as Panem, ruled by a central Capitol and divided into twelve Districts, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a teenage girl living in poverty-stricken District 12. As punishment for a failed rebellion 74 years earlier, each District is forced to offer Tributes of one male and one female, 12-18 years old, to compete in the Hunger Games - a gladiatorial deathmatch in which only one winner can emerge alive, nationally televised to the wealthy and callous Capitol denizens. Katniss volunteers to save her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) from the "Reaping", and she is taken to the Capitol along with fellow Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). There she receives training from former Games champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), grooming from stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) - because survival in the Games may depend on her popularity with "sponsors" - and moral support from the ever upbeat Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). But when it comes to the deadly reality of the Hunger Games, overseen - and often rigged - by the Gamemaker Seneca (Wes Bentley) and coldly observed by the tyrannical President of Panem himself, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), she can only count on her strength, courage, survival knowledge, and skill with a bow.
The easiest thing to compare this movie to is Battle Royale, the 2000 Japanese film about a highschool class kidnapped and forced to fight to the death. On the one hand, the comparison is inapt, especially when it's made by weeaboos who whine that it's a ripoff of Battle Royale. (Seriously, it's not. It merely takes inspiration from the same cultural material, which is what all creative works do. Also, the tonality of both are entirely different; Battle Royale is practically horror, whereas The Hunger Games is more a rousing action-adventure.) On the other hand, the comparison can be useful in illuminating this movie. For all its strengths - and yes, Battle Royale is a great film, and admittedly better than this one - its premise has always been a little hard to swallow; what kind of society, no matter how dystopian, would inflict such a callously inhuman practice on itself? Makes more sense if its inflicted by one inhuman society on another, defeated and conquered one, as punishment.
Its depiction of such an inhuman society is one of The Hunger Games' strengths, in its first half. District 12 looks like Depression-era America right down to its inhabitants' clothes, a visual choice you can bet was deliberate. The people face their Reaping in sullen, defeated silence - and Katniss reacts to her frail little sister's selection with sheer horrified panic. All this jarringly contrasted with Effie Trinket's perverse perkiness, a contrast repeatedly underlined when Katniss and Peeta are treated to the vulgar opulence and luxury of the Capitol. Add to all this the ludicrously garish Capitol fashions, the callously inane TV interviews and commentary with host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci with shockingly white teeth), and the seemingly-patriarchal but monstrous President Snow, and you have a truly bleak dystopian regime that'll have you rooting for the one heroine who fights it.
Although in fact, Katniss doesn't so much fight it as play within its rules to survive. Another of its most interesting threads is that she has to fake a romance with Peeta - who has genuine romantic feelings for her - just to make them popular with viewers, as that will make sponsors send them care packages of crucial supplies during the Games. Early on, Peeta expresses a wish to remain true to himself even as the system grinds him down and possibly kills him, and it gradually becomes clear that personal integrity is exactly what Katniss has to sacrifice in order to stay alive. Not only is this an inversion of the typical YA-lit love triangle trope - she has a friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), back in District 12 who is also in love with her - it's also a unique and affecting moral dilemma for our heroine. As can be expected by anyone who saw her in Winter's Bone, Jennifer Lawrence is terrific; she never misses a beat in portraying Katniss' determination, defiance, terror, grief, and finally despair, when she realizes what the Games has cost her.
The movie is not without its flaws, however, and they're most likely due to its nature as an adaptation. Even without having read the novel, I could tell that there were character and expositional beats that were skipped - which had the effect of making it seem like Katniss has it a little too easy at times. I could buy Haymitch being a drunken sluggard who was won over by Katniss' moxie (and it was a nice touch when he essentially gave up on training Peeta in favour of the more likely winner), but Cinna was a little too wise, kindly and helpful to be part of the tyrannical Games establishment. (And it was real lucky for Katniss and Peeta that he seems to be the best stylist in the business, designing the "fire suits" that win them their first surge of popularity.) Its biggest shortcut is in Katniss' relationship with Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a 12-year-old Tribute from District 12 with whom she forms an alliance that scores a major victory in the competition. It's not at all clear why they would so easily trust each other, and this undercuts the effectiveness of what should be the movie's most heartbreaking scene.
I suspect all of this is elaborated on and explained in Collins' novel, which sticks to a tight 1st-person narrative of Katniss' thoughts. But as a cinematic adaptation, it delivers the goods, particularly when the Games begin and takes up almost the entire second half. Director Gary Ross' (and/or 2nd-unit director Steven Soderbergh - yes, that one) shaky-cam is initially annoying, but serves its purpose in generating terrific dread and suspense when the life-or-death struggles begin - although it still renders the action and fight sequences incomprehensible. It runs 22 minutes over 2 hours, but it doesn't feel long at all; the time is well-invested into worldbuilding and Katniss' emotions. And it passes the franchise-starter test of making me want to watch the next installment handily. I should probably remember to get on the books before Catching Fire comes out though. (Or maybe they're gonna call it The Hunger Games Saga: Catching Fire. You never know.)
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