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The Hunger Games (2012)

March 24, 2012

 

written by: Bill Ray, Gary Ross & Suzanne Collins

produced by: John Kilik, Nina Jacobson, Suzanne Collins & Robin Bissell

directed by: Gary Ross

rating: PG-13 (for violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens)

runtime: 142 min. 

U.S. release date: March 23, 2012

 

In adapting a novel to the big-screen, be it classic or current, there are always inevitable deviations and obvious differences. The reasons are many, yet a couple immediately come to mind – film is a visual medium, so we’re going to see a story that’s been read and there’s also only so much time an audience can spend watching a film, whereas a reader can spend unlimited hours with a book. But fervent fans of popular Young Adult novels, like the Harry Potter and Twilight readers often forget those expected limitations, finding it hard to fathom any changes made to the beloved books they’ve envisioned. But there’s just no getting around that and hopefully those enamored with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy will consider this as they process (and unavoidably compare) what they see on the screen before them.

In the not-so-distant future, North America as we know it is no more, destroyed by war and in its place is Panem, a nation consisting of 12 districts, each with their own specific industrial resources. There was at one time an attempted revolt, an uprising against the wealthy Capital, an opulent city home to the privileged. But that was squashed and as a cruel reminder of that time in history, The Hunger Games was created. A yearly event where a male and female teenager is selected from each district in a ceremony called The Reaping, to compete in a fight to the death, overseen by manipulative Gamemasters. What is a game to the affluent is a tragedy to the oppressed, as only one out of twenty-four tributes (what contestants are called) will be able to return to their district with rewards.

Situated in what appears to be the Appalachian mountains is District 12, where we find sixteen year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives to provide for her twelve year-old sister Prim, short for Primrose (Willow Shields), and their despondent mother (Paula Malcolmson), after the death of their father in the nearby coal mines. In the nearby restricted woods, Katniss uses her proficient archery skills to hunt with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the two manage to trade in whatever they don’t need to the local black market for other essential goods. They are probably the only two people who get each other and fortunately never of them have been chosen to participate in the 74th annual Hunger Games.

Unfortunately, the fragile Prim has been chosen, causing Katniss to instinctively volunteer herself in her sister’s place. It’s a heart-wrenching scene, where Katniss’ action attracts the attention of all the would-be candidates around her. Volunteering is rare but accepted, as outrageous announcer Effie Trinket (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) enthusiastically welcomes Katniss, who is soon joined by Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) the male selection from her district. Both are in shock and immediately whisked off to the extravagant Capitol, home to garish cosplay fashion sense, to begin preparation for the big game.

 

 

The two are given adults to guide and transform them into survivors and something marketable, with the hopes of earning sponsors, which gives each Tribute an edge. Alcoholic Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, in a bad wig) is assigned as their mentor and creative stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, working the eyeliner) is determined to have them stand out during the opening ceremonies. The best way to impress the Capitol populace is to make sure Katniss and Peeta make a lasting impression on the talk show hosted by Caesar (a blue-haired Stanley Tucci), the flamboyant host. During all this commotion, Katniss has to deal with her own fears and her newfound discovery that Peeta has an interest in her.

All of the children are placed in a fabricated wilderness setting (saving production costs by keeping the crew in North Carolina, home of District 12), which is manipulated by Gamemakers, under the supervision of Gamemaster Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, with crazy facial hair) who reports to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) a man with dubious intentions. When the games begin, broadcast live to every district, we witness the disturbing initial slaughter in an open meadow that thins out the group, which forces Katniss into the woods. In her element, surrounded by a variety of frightened peers, like the clever and diminutive Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and the brutish alpha male, Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Katniss keeps her wits about her, determined to get back to her sister. To do so, she must navigate around falling trees and flying fireballs positioned by the Gamesmakers, while ensuring Peeta stays alive as well. Her courageous bravery and selfless compassion makes for stellar rating, but considered to be an act of defiance by the Capitol authorities.

 

 

Those unfamiliar with the source material may find Collins’ story similar to specific written work by William Golding and Stephen King, while others may find a closer resemblance to “Battle Royale” the controversial 2000 Japanese thriller. Stories of survival have been around just as long as ones involving dystopian futures, making them a timeless draw. In the case of “The Hunger Games” viewers may be given a gutsy female protagonist and some outlandish characters, but there’s also plot devices introduced that go nowhere. The writers  certainly have their hands full in creating an adaptation of the first book, which is narrated by Katniss. Director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit”) co-wrote the screenplay with Collins and screenwriter Billy Ray (“Breach”), and they do their best to give each aspect of this harsh future screen time, thankfully without pausing for too much exposition.

But there are areas that do need some further explanation once the games kick off. How exactly does sponsorship works and how do they help tributes? What does Haymitch have to do in order to help out Katniss and Peeta during the games? What becomes of the people of District 11, who rioted after one of their own tribute dies? These are crucial aspects for those who haven’t read the books (a movie should stand on its own, after all), that are apparently left for the audience to forget about or gloss over. Not this viewer.

Fortunately, Ross has the advantage of working with some fine adult actors to support the young actors we see here, but it’s Lawrence is the one we can’t take our eyes off of. Despite the few flaws in the story and how the final hour isn’t as compelling as the first hour and a half, “The Hunger Games” benefits from a perfectly-cast Katniss. Lawrence has had other roles since catching our attention in “Winter’s Bone”, but she brings the same lived-in believability she brought to that Oscar-nominated role. Not only is she physically convincing, but her emotional range on display here is impressive and absolutely needed for such a role. It would’ve been spend more time with Katniss and Gale in the woods, so we would believe this young girl could turn into a Rambo when needed, but nevertheless, Lawrence pulls it off.

 

 

Ross displays a deliberate and confidant touch to “The Hunger Games” as he embraces the task of creating a captivating introduction to this unfair sci-fi world. His use of handheld camerawork may seem spastic to some, but it often establishes the urgent reality of the moment and also helps us look at horrific events through the eyes of Katniss. Once everyone is in the digital forest though, the suspense just isn’t as powerful as the pre-game build-up. Too much time is spent in the control room with Bentley’s lead game master and on how Peeta is forced on Katniss as a love interest. We know he loves her, but does she truly feel the same way? This movie isn’t concerned with examining that, leaving us with vague and generic teen schmaltz that is wedged in to a story that should be more concerned with getting out of there.

It’s understandable that Katniss would want to help keep Peeta alive, as we see the kindness and generosity he’s shown her in her flashbacks. But Ross waits too long to give love a chance, separating the two characters throughout most of the games and then forcing a relationship on them, thinking it’s something that viewers desire. While Lawrence and Hutcherson (an actor I’ve appreciated for some time) do have tangible chemistry, it would just be nice if this movie would allow their characters do discover their relationship on their own terms. It’s clear though that in a culture that has embraced love triangles between emo girls, werewolves and vampires – it’s no surprise that marketing for “The Hunger Games” is already pushing Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (who is merely a cameo) into yet another love triangle.

While the action and suspense of the actual games is riveting, “The Hunger Games” somehow winds up with a lackluster closing that feels unfinished. Sure, there will obviously be another installment, but this ending did not leave me anticipating it in any way. It just seemed like someone pressed pause and then we go right to hearing Arcade Fire  singing over the end credits. At least Ross doesn’t turn Collins’ material into a gaudy blockbuster (the existing fanbase will rake in the dough anyway), allowing the film to succeed on the acting prowess of its lead.

 

 

 

RATING: ***

 

 


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7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2012 3:33 pm

    The girl who plays Prim is Willow Shields not Willow Smith.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      April 10, 2012 8:30 am

      Why, thank you – it only took someone 19 days to catch that! I guess we never saw Prim whip her hair.

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