Drought, famine, riots, rebellion and war had devastated North America nearly a century ago and the12 districts of the newly emerged country of Panem are subjugated by the rulers in the Capitol. To keep the districts under control, the government ordered an annual lottery where each district appoints two teens, one girl and one boy, to be the tributes who must fight to the death for “The Hunger Games.”
The first of Suzanne Collins’s futuristic trilogy – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay – has been hugely anticipated by the fangirls who have eagerly awaited the big screen release of the first of what is bound to spawn a lucrative franchise. But, while teen and tweenie femmes are the primary target audience, the adventure of the gladiatorial games will appeal to the guys, too. Surprisingly, this tale, of a blood contest where 24 tributes do battle until only the last boy/girl standing, garnered a PG-13 MPAA rating, making it accessible to the fan base. (Unlike the controversial Weinstein Company documentary, “Bully,” which received an R rating, excluding the teens it aims at from being able to see the film in theaters and schools.)
Not having read any of the books, I walked into “The Hunger Games” with an Entertainment Weekly understanding of the story and the characters. With the hype the film’s debut is getting, most everyone will at least have a cursory knowledge of the futuristic tale of blood sport. I do not think you need to read the novel to appreciate the film, but it helps. As a non-fan of the trilogy, I have a number of questions that only the diehard fans will be able to answer.
However, a film – even one based on a popular series – has to appeal to those uninitiated to the cautionary, futuristic vision of the fate of mankind. It is not a pretty picture and the prelude to the “reaping” – the selection of the tributes who will do battle – is done with titles, filling us in on the tumult of our society leading to the 74 Annual Hunger Games. It is a 1% ruling the 99% situation as the games have become mandatory viewing for all the civilians in the 12 districts. For the 1%, the games are mere entertainment and the filmmakers, led by director Gary Ross, show the well-to-do viewers (not the proles in the districts) as selfish hedonists who dress as if the Mad Hatter was their tailor.
Acting ranges from the dramatic, with Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutchinson, both very good, quite serious as the team from District 12 trying to get through it all together, even though they know there is only one survivor of the mayhem. The rest of the contestants are only fodder for the games until the expected confrontation between Katniss and Peeta and the uber-tributes of District One. The body count (mostly off screen) is high but the blood-letting is minimal for this kind of film. (The similar Japanese film “Battle Royal” (available now on DVD and Blu-Ray), about high school students turned gladiators, is darker, funnier and far bloodier than “The Hunger Games.”)
The camp side of the acting – Stanley Tucci as Gamesmaster Caesar Flickerman, Wes Bentley as Games MC Seneca Crane (with a precisely sculptured beard), PR flack Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks (Really? I said, she is so transformed by outrageous makeup and costume)) – is done for that out-there factor, making me wonder when Suzanne Collins’s future world and Hollywood’s collide is it in favor of Tinseltown or faithful to the book? I really have to talk to the fans. I give it a B-.
In an unspecified future, North America has been divided into twelve districts ruled over with an iron fist by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the Capitol since a rebellious uprising. In the coal mining District 12, sixteen year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone") keeps that spirit alive by hunting illegally with her childhood friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, "The Last Song"). But each year the Capitol reinforces its control by staging Reapings to secure a boy and girl from each district twelve to eighteen years of age to fight to the death until only one survives its reality TV spectacular, "The Hunger Games."
There, I've just given you more back story about the world this takes place in than the movie does...and the verdict on perhaps 2012's most anticipated film? Serviceable. The filmmakers owe a lot to their star, Jennifer Lawrence, whose commitment and intensity as Katniss Everdeen carries the film through its many weaknesses, dead spots and cheesy visuals. The first "Twilight" movie, to which this will invariably be compared because of its YA source material and huge pre-made fan base, was a better and much more stylish adaptation.
The opening shot fires a warning signal as we see Katniss consoling her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) who is terrified because she will be entered into her first Reaping - cinematographer Tom Stern ("Letters from Iwo Jima," "J. Edgar") frames them poorly and after about the first five minutes I was chanting a 'hold the damn camera still' mantra. Katniss goes off to hunt from a nondescript field past an unimpressive looking fence and we meet the first male of this series' love triangle, Gale - although the 'romance' is represented by some vague talk of running away together to live in the forest. Gale largely disappears from the story and there's never any real romantic tension.
The film's production design is really sub par. There's only one moment that Ross and his team work up any real sense of environment and that's during District 12's Reaping. As lines of children in their Sunday best are paraded up towards a stage, their town center looking like a Western fortress, different aspects of the proceedings are projected on banner-like screens on the side of a stage and for a brief moment the whole scene feels like an Appalachian Holocaust. District 12's Capitol representative, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, "Seabiscuit," "Man on a Ledge"), done up like a pink cupcake (the book emphasized Capitol inhabitants' bizarre, colorful fashion, represented inconsistently and unimaginatively here), perkily chooses the first name and, of course, against the odds it's Prim. As the girl and her mother have been writ as spineless doormats, Katniss becomes District 12's first volunteer, protecting little sister. Her teammate is announced and we meet Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, "The Kids Are All Right," gradually working his way into the character), whose importance in Katniss's life will be shown in flashback.
There's no sense of wonder, no extreme of comparison, as the downtrodden District 12ers are whisked away to the presumed opulence and plenty of the Capitol (CGI backdrops are whisked from the screen before they've had a chance to make their inadequacies known). The 'tributes' are feted, paraded and trained in the days leading up to the start of the actual games. The big kickoff, which should be thrilling and terrifying and disorienting is none of these things. Simply tubes lead to simple platforms in another average looking field where the book's distinctive 'Cornucopia,' from which tributes can risk safety gathering survival goods and weaponry, looks like mangled heat ducting. There's a bunch of running around conveyed with choppy editing that leaves us with the knowledge that a bunch of kids have been killed by a bunch of other kids without actually witnessing the horror. (The Japanese cult film, "Battle Royale," which series author Suzanne Collins is frequently accused of stealing from (she denies foreknowledge), is far more shocking because it doesn't shy away from the blood and violence of an R rating.)
Writer (with Billy Ray and book author Suzanne Collins)/director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville," "Seabiscuit") was smart to go with Lawrence and has made a number of other solid choices (rocker Lenny Kravitz, who I thought was miscast as Katniss's 'dresser' Cinna, is really terrific in the role), but his adaptation isn't as well paced as it could be, nor, surprisingly given the 142 minute run time, is everything given as much shrift as it should. The huge irony is that the games themselves contain dead spots that could easily have been excised to bulk up the political subtext of the story. When Rue (Amandla Stenberg, "Colombiana"), the little tribute from District 11 who shyly teamed up with our heroine, is killed, Lawrence makes it affecting, but her defiant gesture towards game cameras is followed by a brief snippet of rioting (labelled District 11 and so tightly shot it could be happening in a closet) which doesn't really convey the threat Katniss is becoming. Her later checkmate to the Capitol is even more botched, with no crosscutting to a panicked operation room and gamemaster, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, "American Beauty," finally getting a role in a big franchise only to be offed in the first film). It all ends with a bit of a shrug.
"The Hunger Games" is no "Harry Potter" as regards its production, failing on almost every level. The 'girl on fire' costumes Cinna creates to gain sponsorship for Katniss are underwhelming, as is everything about the Capitol. The soundtrack has some nice, folky moments by artists like Taylor Swift and Arcade Fire, but nothing's all that distinctive. Even the great Woody Harrelson ("Rampart") is left to play the alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy, District 12's only former winner and mentor to its current tributes, by having hair hang in his eyes. Banks and Stanley Tucci ("Julie & Julia"), as Games emcee Caesar Flickerman, manage to inject some of the outrageousness their costume and makeup teams couldn't whip up into their performances.
The film is a timely lesson for kids in ethics and fighting oppression and the twenty-one year-old Lawrence gives her sixteen year-old survivalist gritty strength with a hint of wistfulness. If only Ross were able to imbue his "Hunger Games" with a stronger sense of just what she's fighting for.
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