WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: In a totalitarian America of the Future, plucky Katniss Everdeen takes her sister’s place in the deadly Hunger Games, where two children from each district fight until only one survives – for the entertainment of the ruling classes. Though she’s a natural hunter and resolves her differences with Peeta, the boy from her district, the odds of survival do not appear to be at all in their favour.
There have been terrible times in Panem, and peace has come at a cost. To remind each of the 12 remaining Districts of their treason, a boy and girl from each is chosen to compete in the cruel but popular Hunger Games, where the children must fight to the death while being manipulated by Gamemakers and bet on by the decadent classes of the Capitol. As the 74th Games approach, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a born survivor in the impoverished 12th District, worries that her little sister Primrose will be chosen for the trial; when her worst fears are realised, Katniss volunteers to take her place and is sent to the Capitol along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a boy who has scorned her in the past. Accompanied to the city by gaudily-dressed Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and hard-drinking mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the youngsters are put through their paces in preparation for the deadly games ahead. However, it’s not just about physical strength and nous in the treacherous and changeable terrain of the games arena; putting on a good show for the viewers can lead to valuable gifts from sponsors, so looking the part might be the difference between life and death.
If the idea behind The Hunger Games strikes you as unbelievably cruel, you can calm yourself. Yes, the idea of children being made to kill other children for entertainment is horrendous, but it’s no worse than the horror that Lord of the Flies builds to, allied to a Truman Show-like satire about the future of entertainment: a young adult update of The Running Man, if you like (author Suzanne Collins swears she’d not heard of Battle Royale until she’d finished writing; some of the comparisons are striking, but very possibly coincidental). Furthermore, while I can’t comment on Collins’ novels, the film works because it takes its subject incredibly seriously. The violence, slightly tougher in the 15-rated Blu-ray than the (UK) cinematic release, always has a purpose and is always unpleasant, which is the way it should be; most deaths, marked with cannon fire, are poignant, and one in particular is heart-breaking. The action is well-paced and steadily-filmed, which is a blessed relief compared to many recent hyperactive releases. You can also get stuck into the universe of The Hunger Games, the uncaring population of the capital city dressed up like extras from Marie Antoinette while the poorer districts have regressed into the 19th Century, aside from the technology which a) forces them to watch the games and b) keeps them under the thumb. The world is credible, not least because there are signs of it fraying at the edges.
All that, however, is a larger picture that we only care about because of the amazing character of Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is brave, resourceful, and whilst clearly terrified by her ordeal, does what she needs to do to stay alive – including killing, but only to protect others. Jennifer Lawrence is extraordinary in the role, bringing every nuance of Katniss’ emotions to the screen while also being pretty and athletic, though not distractingly so. She is absolutely the heart of the film, and by the end shows hints of becoming bigger than the games, analogous to Jonathan E in Rollerball. There are plenty of decent performances elsewhere, from both the younger cast and the ‘adults’ – Harrelson in particular is fun, while a bewigged Stanley Tucci makes a wonderfully smarmy commentator, Lenny Kravitz is surprisingly good as sympathetic stylist* Cinna and Donald Sutherland oozes menace as the odious President Snow. Amandla Stenberg is also very very affecting as Rue, the little tribute from District 11. Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is quiet but evidently set up for bigger things as the rugged point of a love triangle with Katniss and Peeta.
But while we’re lauding The Hunger Games to the skies, let’s not pretend that it’s perfect. In general, the vision of the future is pretty solid, but a few things aren’t so clear. Firstly, the system of sponsorship seems very simplistic, Katniss miraculously getting exactly what she needs by acting in certain ways (are the other contestants being sponsored? Are their mentors pulling strings behind the scenes? We’re not told). Secondly – and here be spoilers – there’s the issue of technology: of course it’s going to have become massively advanced in the 70-plus years of the Games, and I can just about live with the concept of genetically-engineered wasps; however, the gamemakers’ ability to (apparently) materialise sentient, ravenous beasts out of inanimate elements can’t help (for me) but come across as a contrivance too far, especially when the kids-on-kids stuff was providing all the tension the story needed. I’m assuming they were in the book as well, but whether they were or not their presence is a big misstep at a very inopportune time.
However, these are fairly minor complaints when set against The Hunger Games’ successes. It’s a powerful and exciting film, with a feisty heroine doing what she can to overcome the odds. I wasn’t terribly interested by the film when it first came out; having seen it, I made sure that I’d catch Catching Fire on the big screen.
NOTES: Watch the film, it makes sense. The disconnect between the vacuous, garish fashion of the Capitol’s citizens and the real, grisly deaths of the games is one of the reasons the story works so well: an angry reader/viewer is an involved reader/viewer.