The Hunger Games (2012)
“The World Will Be Watching”
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death in which two teenagers from each of the twelve Districts of Panem are chosen at random to compete.
Teen franchise movies very often strike fear in the heart of this reviewer. I’m an adult male with fond memories of the days of punk and the early Rocky movies – what possible interest could insipid tales of teen vampires who randomly alter vampire lore for reasons of cinematic commercial viability hold for me? The Twilight movies once again illustrated with crystal clarity just how far Hollywood was prepared to demean itself at the altar of financial gain, and there was no reason to believe that The Hunger Games movie, which was based on the popular teen novels by Suzanne Collins, would be any different.
In fact, The Hunger Games appeared to be just another watered down copy of an earlier generation’s idea – and, in truth that’s exactly what it is; the spectre of the Japanese horror movie Battle Royale (2000) hangs heavily over Gary Ross’s teen-friendly movie. The Hunger Games movie takes the basic premise of that earlier film – a group of teens in an inhospitable terrain fighting one another for survival – and applies a typically polished Hollywood gloss to it. But what sets The Hunger Games apart from other teen movies is the way in which it devotes a fair amount of time – nearly half of its running time focuses on events before the actual games get under way – to developing its characters, and finds a way to appeal to teens without alienating their parents or earning their disapproval.
The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic USA which is divided into 12 impoverished districts whose residents strongly resemble those of the depression-era dust bowl states, and a privileged capitol region whose fortunate inhabitants dress not unlike bewigged 18th Century dandies. Some time before, a rebellion by a now abolished 13th district was quelled by the Capitol, which subsequently introduced the concept of the Hunger Games. Each year, one boy and one girl from each of the 12 remaining districts is selected by lottery to take part in the titular televised event. Known as Tributes, the chosen youths are trained by mentors – survivors of previous Hunger Games – in survival techniques, and are feted as celebrities by the media before they are transported to the countryside in which the Games will take place. Only when one survivor remains is the Hunger Games over.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers for the Games when her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields) is selected, and is partnered with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). However, as there can only be one winner, she is reluctant to get too close to Peeta, despite a mutual attraction and the fact that he had showed Katniss an act of potentially life-saving kindness in the past. The pair are mentored by former winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson — Rampart), a shambling drunk who initially shows little faith in his protege’s chances of survival, but whose opinion is eventually transformed by Katniss’s courage and determination. Interestingly, Haymitch’s condition seems to be induced more by mentoring a succession of teens who subsequently perished rather than the consequences of participating in the Hunger Games himself.
The Games begin after a crass chat show in which all the tributes are interviewed by reptilian showman Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci — The Hoax, Gambit). They’re then transported to the heavily-forested region in which their fight for life will take place before a multitude of concealed cameras for the entertainment of the citizens of the Capitol. Within minutes, almost half of the competitors are wiped out in a bloody free-for-all as they fight for a cache of weapons, but following Haymitch’s advice, Katniss heads for the hills…
Because it’s aimed at teens and was therefore produced with a 13 certificate in mind, The Hunger Games movie can only suggest the violent deaths that take place rather than showing any detail, which naturally means that the pulse-quickening terror the kids must be suffering is never convincingly transmitted to the audience. The killings in which Katniss is involved are all sort of non-confrontational, and always committed in self-defence, while we don’t see the largely ineffectual Peeta commit any at all. While this isn’t really a criticism, and doesn’t diminish our enjoyment of the spectacle, it does mean that we feel at times as though we’re watching a game of paintball rather than a duel to the death. Jennifer Lawrence makes a spirited and resourceful heroine, with her beauty played down to good effect. She could never look ugly, but at least here she looks ordinarily pretty and is entirely believable as someone whose life has been one of grinding poverty.
The Hunger Games feels at times as if it’s flirting with the idea of satirical content, particularly in the way in which the state-sponsored punishment of its working class is staged as entertainment for the privileged few. Parallels with the mindless ‘reality TV’ form of entertainment fed to the overweight populace of today are all too obvious, but the film’s treatment is too lightweight to really convince, and insufficient attention is paid to Stanley Tucci’s face of the Games for him to make more than a cosmetic impression. Scenes of incipient acts of rebellion inspired by Katniss’s continuing survival are too also brief and infrequent to paint a convincing portrait of the people’s growing sense of injustice and unrest, and we’re given no real insight into how Collins’ world operates or in what other ways the people of the Districts are kept in line.
But The Hunger Games movie is much stronger when it focuses on the plight of Katniss once the Games begin. It’s not difficult to see why an army of 13-year-old girls identify with such a deceptively tough and feisty heroine, and it’s refreshing to see a movie in which gender stereotypes are reversed so that for once it’s the girl who’s the hero and the boy in need of rescue. Director Gary Ross strengthens the target audiences’ identification with her even further by taking care to tell this part of the story almost exclusively from Katniss’s perspective, so that, apart from Peeta, we barely learn anything about the other tributes.
The only times that rebelling teenagers aren’t frowned upon are when they’re rebelling against a great injustice, which is why The Hunger Games movie won’t earn many rebukes from the parents of its teen fan-base. The unyielding and calculated autocracy of this society is embodied by the God-like, white-bearded figure of President Snow (Donald Sutherland — National Lampoon’s Animal House), whose simplistic – and blindingly inaccurate – philosophising that ‘hope is the only thing that’s stronger than fear’ paves the way for the next movie in the franchise. Whether The Hunger Games further develops the themes it introduces here or merely opts for rehashing the same plot will undoubtedly go a long way towards deciding whether the franchise continues to succeed as a (so far) unusually well-made and engaging series.