With the HARRY POTTER movies officially over and the TWILIGHT franchise coming to an end, Hollywood is eagerly looking for their next popular film series. The fine folks at Lionsgate have set their sights on Suzanne Collins’ popular books with THE HUNGER GAMES, their highly-anticipated adaptation opening this weekend.
In the world of THE HUNGER GAMES, a future where industry-based divisions are separated by government and the wealthy class, the average citizen lives a life of poverty and desperation. The divisions are forced by their respective representatives to choose one youthful boy and girl to participate in a televised game of survival, with the single winner achieving power and rewards for their division, and notoriety and high status for their achievement. We’re introduced to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her weakly sister Primrose (Willow Shields), citizens of the District 12 (of 12) division, and Katniss’ friend and male confidant Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). When their division leader Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) calls the town together for the selection process, Primrose is the name drawn for the female contestant. Knowing her younger sister will never survive the tournament, Katniss volunteers herself to take Primrose’s place in the games – Effie accepts, and draws the boy name, that of Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has a brief but memorable past with Katniss. As the two are officially entered into The Hunger Games, they find themselves interviewed before giant crowds by the eccentric host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), coached by the very first (of their district) game champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and groomed by the strong and silent Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). The games themselves are being puppet mastered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his eccentric lackey Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). As their training is carried out, Katniss and Peeta begin to develop a friendship and chemistry the game audience falls in love with. The question is what happens when the games begin, and their respective lives are literally on the line?
There’s a well-known Japansese film from 2000 called BATTLE ROYALE, also based on a novel, which THE HUNGER GAMES is rather similar to in more than a few ways. In BR, set in the future, the Japanese government captures a class of 9th grade students and forces them to find weapons, compete and utterly kill each other under the revolutionary “Battle Royale” act. In HG, the selection of players is obviously more random, and it’s more likely most of the kids wouldn’t know each other, but essentially the story is very familiar. Perhaps the biggest alteration in this movie is the relationship between Katniss and Peeta, and where the books that follow ultimately take the story. I bring this up because there have been comparisons by those familiar with both, and I (like many) was curious how a story like this could be produced as a teen-friendly PG-13 big budget American movie. Director Gary Ross had a lot to accomplish here, and the end result is rather impressive and at times downright stunning.
Chances are the average non-fan will be initially confused a bit and perhaps even put off by some of the eccentric designs depicted in THE HUNGER GAMES, such as Wes Bentley’s flowery beard pattern, Elizabeth Banks dramatically-colored clothing and clown-like make-up, or even Stanley Tucci’s Oompa Loompa meets Beethoven look… but it all serves to show how pampered and ridiculous the upper crust of this world’s society is in comparison to the ‘normal’ people like those forced to participate in the games. These design qualities also let the viewer know we’re in for a much different type of experience, and this world we’re viewing is one of unfamiliarity. What I thought I’d hate about those qualities of the film, I actually ended up appreciating for their unique and daring results. Even subtle touches, like gold eyeshadow on Lenny Kravitz’s otherwise typically metro-sexual look, all adds to the illusion of the futuristic class division. The sweeping digital backgrounds of the high society arenas are beautifully integrated with the actors, transporting us into the story and disjointed universe in sublime style. Imagine if Arnold Schwarzenegger’s THE RUNNING MAN was made today with hundreds of millions of dollars… sorry, I keep thinking of other similar films, but that’s certainly not to say this one isn’t good in its own right.
A story like this lives or dies by the actors involved, and whether or not they can convincingly deliver the material in the script onto the big screen. Jennifer Lawrence is easily the heavy lifter of the piece, and takes the audience along for her dangerous ride with perfection. She’s got a great look to start with, beautiful without looking like a model, and convincingly tough and athletic in all the moments that require it. We have to believe in the character of Katniss and her abilities, and Lawrence makes us do just that. She’s done so much in such a short period of time since catching the eye of critics and the Oscars (nominated in 2011) for her work in WINTER’S BONE (2010), and this performance should solidify her as an A-list talent capable of carrying the most complicated of scripts. Josh Hutcherson, another actor who has turned in a wide variety of roles in his youthful career, also delivers the goods as Peeta – playing effectively a struggling victim of circumstance walking a fine line between glory seeker and put upon pawn. His role has some great ambiguity to it, and again makes the story more interesting than just a two-dimensional romantic tale. Liam Hemsworth feels sadly underused, and while there’s no denying his staggering good looks, the audience never gets much chance to see his acting chops in full effect.
A lot of the supporting cast appear to be giving it their all and having fun with their roles. Stanley Tucci has simply great moments as the cocky host of the game, and his interview scenes are a delight to behold for a variety of reasons. Wes Bentley, who was so brilliant in AMERICAN BEAUTY, gets another chance to shine as the unprepared lackey (of Donald Sutherland’s character), playing a villain who in many ways is just doing what’s necessary to keep the audience entertained. Sutherland, though used sparingly, proves he still has enough gravitas to make the most of the smallest scene – I’m hoping there’s much more of him in the sequels. Lenny Kravitz does a fine job as the groomer to Katniss, showing a side of sympathy most of the other upper class characters lack, and it’s nice to see him continue honing his acting ability after PRECIOUS. Woody Harrelson has momentary bits of greatness, though feels a little restrained in his role, probably out of necessity. And then there’s Elizabeth Banks, who embraces the pretentious qualities of Effie, adding a proper layer of distinction to the difference in class depicted in the story – she’ll easily become one of the more memorable supporting characters. The filmmakers have also done a fine job casting the other players in the game, with believable faces and contained but impressive performances… I never thought Isabelle Fuhrman could be as equally creepy as she was in ORPHAN, but her performance as Clove comes pretty close – Alexander Ludwig is also subtly brilliant as the cold and calculating Cato.
Director Gary Ross gives the project an epic quality that works from start to finish, transporting us into the story and universe of this tale, and never feeling overly abstract or bizarre. It’s a film we can all find a way to relate to, and that is perhaps the most challenging aspect of bringing this story to the big screen. Even the music by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard finds the right moments to be powerful, and knows when to bring it down a notch for scenes of beauty or melancholy. THE HUNGER GAMES does what TWILIGHT frequently misses the mark with – it delivers strong characters, a solid storytelling technique, and doesn’t shy away from the moments that matter. Death scenes are sudden and impactful, never telegraphed for the audience to simply wait for. And the romance isn’t sappy or overdone, but rather sincere and real, the way we’ve all at some point felt or experienced. To put it simply, it works. Knowing where the stories are headed from here, it will be interesting to see how audiences react to this first outing. Even at two hours and 22 minutes, the movie never feels slow or meandering… if anything I wanted more. There’s undoubtedly going to be objection to the idea of kids killing other kids, despite this essentially being a sci-fi otherworldly tale, and the comparisons to films like TWILIGHT might actually be a deterrent for more mature crowds. But give THE HUNGER GAMES a chance, and you may just find one of the best starts to a franchise we’ve seen in a long time.
Odds are you’ll love it.