REVIEW: The Hunger Games

Photo: Lionsgate

Photo: Lionsgate

Chris Luckett

The last time there was this kind of fervour for a film adaptation may have been over a decade ago, with the releases of the first films in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises. Even bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn’t have the built-in anticipation and the drummed-up marketing that The Hunger Games has amassed for itself.

Perhaps the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings comparisons are more apt than I intended. All three book series are behemoths in the world of youth-read literature; all three depict young adults dealing with over-the-top circumstances in a very different world than ours; and the movie adaptations of all three have had to walk the tightrope of pleasing die-hard fans while also trying to serve the needs of the movie.

As wonderful as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was, it was too slavish to the source material at times, at the expense of creating the different pace and tone the latter half of the film needed. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring wonderfully tweaked and tinkered with Tolkien’s original book, hoping fans of the book would like it but caring more about serving the movie than the original writing.

The Hunger Games falls somewhere in between. Fans who have gotten upset at omissions of things like Tom Bombadil in LOTR or the origin of the Marauder’s Map in HP will surely balk at things that were changed or left out. To an extent, they’ll have a point to their umbrage, as a number of the tiny things excised from the story will be necessary in later films and could’ve been covered in mere seconds. (Avoxes, for instance, are only present in one scene, and never even explained to the audience.)

But what if you haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel? What are you in store for? Is the movie worth watching if you’re not a fan of the books?

Absolutely. The Hunger Games, for all its tiny flaws, is a marvel of an adaptation and a fantastic thrill ride in its own right.

The story is one familiar to anyone who’s watched movies like The Running Man, The Most Dangerous Game, Battle Royale, or even The Condemned: a bunch of people compete in a live, televised battle-to-the-death. What makes The Hunger Games the best-filmed version of that concept is everything outside of the deathmatch itself.

The first half of the movie is all setup. It introduces us to the nation of Panem. At an indeterminate time in the past, there was a devastating war that destroyed most of the planet. Built on the razed remains of North America was Panem, a country of 13 districts. Following an uprising, the government struck down its revolting citizens and even obliterated one of the districts. To further establish control and keep its citizens in fear, the government of Panem, in the Capitol, made it law that every year, one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each of the remaining 12 districts would fight to the death, with the world forced to watch and cheer on their districts’ competitors.

Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the story, is the girl chosen from the impoverished District 12. The beauty of Collins’ vision of the future is that while affluent districts of Panem look futuristic and dazzling, the lower districts look like something out of Little House on the Prairie. There are the occasional pieces of new technology in District 12, but even they look worn-out and decrepit, hand-me-downs from “more important” districts that have disposed of their tech for newer models.

Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence, in the type of role that is bound to define her for a long time to come, much as Daniel Radcliffe will be remembered as Harry Potter. Lawrence is perfectly cast, taking her Oscar-nominated performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone and tweaking it with a tinge more humour and a healthy dose of humanity.

District 12’s male competitor is Peeta Mellark, played by the always-underrated Josh Hutcherson. Hutcherson has shown a natural acting talent since his early child-actor days almost a decade ago. In movies like Little Manhattan, Zathura, and more recent fare like The Kids are All Right, he’s often stolen scenes from actors far his senior. In Peeta, he, too, gets the role of a lifetime.

Hutcherson made a very public campaign to get himself cast in this movie, speaking effusively about the character of Peeta and how strongly he wished to have the opportunity to play him (long before a movie version had even been announced).

In many ways, Peeta is the most complex character of the book trilogy and surely the role that requires the most acting talent. Those who’ve read the sequels know the emotional pain he’ll have to endure in Catching Fire and the psychological depths he’ll plumb in what will surely be the star performance in Mockingjay. Fans can rest easy. Hutcherson proves himself more than capable of delivering both what is currently required of his character and what will be.

It takes a lot of skill to truthfully depict the excruciating pain of secret, unrequited love without being over-the-top; I’m not sure I could name another actor under 20 who could pull it off with such subtle nuance as Hutcherson does. Katniss may be the focus of the story, but Peeta has the largest trajectory of any character in the series. Based on what Hutcherson shows us here, we can likely expect to be blown away by his work in the sequels.

The supporting performances are, sadly, a little hit-and-miss. Some of the casting is genius (Donald Sutherland as the malevolent President Snow, Stanley Tucci as infectiously genial talk-show host Caesar Flickerman, Elizabeth Banks as the shrill and oblivious Effie).

Wes Bentley, in particular, is outstanding as the Games’ designer and producer, Seneca Crane. Bentley wowed the as the emo next-door neighbour in American Beauty, before falling off the map in lesser-profile films like Soul Survivors and The Four Feathers. Bentley does wonderful work as a man interested in putting on a great TV show above all else.

 Other roles have been filled by actors who, while talented, never truly overcome their ill-fitting casting. Woody Harrelson does admirably as the perpetually drunk Haymitch, though the role is much more suited to an actor who can dig into darker territory, like Robert Downey, Jr. (who was a fan favourite before casting). Lenny Kravitz is also perfectly adequate as Cinna, Katniss’ assigned costume designer/makeup artist before the Games, although he’s not given much to do.

Given even less to do is Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’ childhood best friend, Gale. Worse still, even though Gale is relegated to a very minor role here, Hemsworth doesn’t seem to be able to bring anything to the character beyond a Tiger Beat smolder and the ability to stare silently across fields with a blank look on his face. I would have much preferred someone like Andrew Garfield in the role, who may not have attracted the teen-girl crowd but that will be capable of carrying the increasingly heavy load the character of Gale will have to in the future. Hopefully Hemsworth gets some acting tips from his older brother before the first sequel commences filming.

The first half of the film deals with the recruitment of the competitors for the 74th annual Hunger Games, including travelling to the Capitol, training athletically, acquiring sponsors, and all the politics involved in a national media event (albeit one in a dystopian future). The second half of the movie is the Games themselves. In a way, half the movie feels like build-up, which is both a compliment and a criticism. You may admittedly find yourself checking your watch around the one-hour mark, wondering when the real action will begin. Once it does, however, the thrills don’t let up until a few minutes before the credits roll.

I won’t get into any details beyond that basic framework, as readers already know that some of the best moments in the story come out of the blue. I will mention two things, though, that were mostly created for the movie and add an interesting perspective.

In the book, the Games themselves are told entirely through Katniss’ eyes. The reader follows her everywhere and doesn’t experience or witness anything she doesn’t. Ross’ movie, however, never loses sight of the fact that these children are participants in a televised event. Every so often, we, the audience, are withdrawn from the action within the arena and get to view some of the ongoing commentary that Flickerman and announcer Claudius Templesmith provide for TV viewers in Panem. These scenes, admittedly, don’t work very well; the exposition was so clunky a few times that it reeked of lack of trying to explain details expressed in the book.

There are other interjecting scenes, though, where Seneca presides from on high, producing the show in real-time and controlling the environment to steer the televised contestants toward different traps or plot developments. These scenes have the same feel as watching the gods in Clash of the Titans toy with mortals below, or watching Ed Harris’ character in The Truman Show creating sunrises and machinating devastations for helpless Jim Carrey below him.

Such moments in the control room of the Games telecast help continually remind us of the story’s scale, while also pushing us even more into Katniss’ corner by reminding us that there are countless people who could help her (as well as all the other unfortunate children), but purposely do not for the sake of entertainment. It adds to a dark undertone that didn’t truly emerge until the second book, but serves the story well by being imbued so early.

The big question is whether to see The Hunger Games if you haven’t read the books; if you have, you surely already made up your mind about seeing or not seeing it, and this review won’t sway you. To those who don’t know their mockingjay from their tracker jacker, however, I can proudly attest that this movie works for everyone. In fact, it is a practically perfect adaptation of the book. Any flaws it does have are mostly ones that were present in the book, as well, and that would cripple the story if removed or changed.

As far as the final result, the fact is that this is the best adaptation of The Hunger Games that could have been made. I may have some personal qualms with casting choices and plot omissions, but none of them are enough to prevent me from recommending it. The Hunger Games is timely, clever, patient, entertaining, and rewarding. And considering the first of the three books is the weakest one in the trilogy, if this is what Ross can do with The Hunger Games, my ticket for Catching Fire is as good as bought.

4 stars / 5

(Note: While The Hunger Games is rated PG-13, it is extremely intense. Other than The Dark Knight and the Lord of the Rings movies, I can’t think of another PG-13 film so close to deserving an R rating. Much of the most brutal violence is depicted through such clever editing that you think you see more than you do, but that’s not to say that there aren’t still scenes of necks snapping, machetes slicing, and skin burning. While the movie has lots of good lessons to take away from it and upstanding role models in its young protagonists, The Hunger Games is not a child-appropriate movie. Be advised, it may be too intense for some pre-teens.)

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