It’s perhaps a slight exaggeration, but during the past couple months I feel like I have been banging my head against a brick wall when writing some reviews on this blog, particularly with regard to the blockbusters that I’ve seen in 2013. With the exception of Star Trek: Into Darkness (just) I’ve found these bloated behemoths to be all surface with little or no substance, essentially a series of adverts for special effects companies rather than a composite piece where elements such as the acting, plot, script, direction and cinematography all jostle for the plaudits. I don’t think I’ve seen anything particularly execrable (although World War Z pushed most of my buttons), but given the vast amounts spent on these films I’ve left the cinema repeatedly feeling shortchanged and disillusioned by the direction Hollywood has taken. And this is before seeing Pacific Rim.
Rather unexpectedly, my faith has been restored a little now that I’ve finally got round to watching one of last year’s most financially-successful cinema releases. I wasn’t expecting too much from The Hunger Games, and perhaps that’s the key to enjoyment for me these days. Having seen some press around the time of its release, I had Gary Ross’s film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ popular ‘young adult’ novel pegged as something that I – as a 38-year-old as opposed to a 13-year-old – would not enjoy, but I was wrong. While it has its faults, it’s nice to see a film aimed at teenagers that treats its core audience as intelligent people who are able to handle satire and violence in a mature way.
The film is set in a future version of North America where, following a bloody civil war years before, a totalitarian government rules the land (renamed ‘Panem’, from the Latin phrase ‘panem et circenses’ – ‘bread and circuses’ – a metaphor and political strategy whereby appeasement of the masses is attained through diversion or distraction) with an iron fist. Poor, starving communities that resemble those of the late 19th Century pioneers are kept in districts, yet other citizens live with great flamboyance and decadence in the nation’s Capitol. Each year, as punishment for a past uprising, two victims between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected by lottery from each of the 12 districts and must fight each other to the death in the Hunger Games, a violent and bloody sport / reality show televised purely for the entertainment of the ruling classes.
In District 12 Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) when the latter is randomly selected to take part in the TV battle. Along with fellow nominee Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) Katniss is taken to the Capitol where they are both groomed for TV appearances and the forthcoming fight to the death by a trio of mentors. These are the ludicrously-coiffeured escort Effie (Elizabeth Banks), stylist Cinna (Lennie Kravitz) and former winner and current full-time drunk Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).
After training in the Capitol and appearing on TV (where they are interviewed by chat show host Caesar Flickerman, played to the camp max with relish by the ever-superb Stanley Tucci), Katniss and Peeta must face 22 rivals from 11 other districts in an artificially-controlled environment where weapons and supplies are limited, and the contestants must live on their wits; the last man-child standing is the eventual winner. Directing all of this cruelty is God-complex media man Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) who takes orders only from the man above him, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, who presumably was preparing for the lead role in the Captain Bird’s Eye biopic when the call came for this film).
Post-Twilight, it’s unsurprising that the rights of a similarly-popular series of novels (The Hunger Games is the first of three) have been snapped up and turned into a cinematic moneyspinner. To the credit of all involved, though, the signs after one film suggest that enough quality is on show to ensure the trilogy rises above any accusations of it being nothing more than a cash-in. While The Hunger Games is refreshingly simple, it is also knowingly smart. We are asked to root and cheer for an underdog selected from the oppressed classes as a plaything of the rich and famous, which is easy enough to do. The plot, with its clear definitions of haves and have-nots, is simple to follow and Ross and the writers wisely avoid any long, dreary political sequences to attract as wide an audience as possible. Had The Hunger Games been targeting an adult audience, I’d probably have been disappointed by the fact that a long film does not find the time to flesh out life in The Capitol a little more, or fully explain its origins, but it doesn’t really suffer from this omission too much.
Yet there is more to The Hunger Games than meets the eye (albeit not that much more). As a critique of our society today, the targets are clearly television and the vacuousness of celebrity worship. The Capitol, with its lavish suppers, fawning subjects and gaily-dressed courtiers recalls Rome before the fall of the Roman Empire (the film is also riddled with Roman names), plus there is a clear parallel with gladiator fights in the Colosseum. Yet, perhaps most interestingly, the story suggests that this is the likely outcome if we continue along the path we are currently travelling with regard to our 21st Century reality TV shows and our predilection for on-screen violence. I don’t doubt for a minute that a great many commercial TV stations would dearly love to make a TV show today that shared the basic idea of the Hunger Games, but cannot due to the current moral boundaries that thankfully still carry enough weight to prevent them from doing so. According to Collins, the idea for the story came to her after she was idly flicking between TV channels that were showing reality shows and reports from the second Iraq war.
It’s perhaps a little frustrating that the film doesn’t go to town on the corrupting influence of its targets; The Hunger Games is not an ‘angry’ film (though neither is the book, by all accounts), and so it feels like reality television and celebrity culture are let off the hook somewhat. There is no great upheaval of the society depicted here, though without having read any of the books I would guess that’s the way the story will go in the following episodes. I’m hoping they are more vitriolic, more biting, and carry a good dose of the disgust and revolutionary spirit for which its targeted teenage audience is so famous.
The most obvious point to make about The Hunger Games is that it borrows heavily from other films and books. The most striking comparison is with Kinji Fukasuku’s bizarrely funny and gleefully violent Japanese film Battle Royale, in which an entire class of Japanese schoolkids are forced to do battle in similar circumstances as punishment for slipping standards of behaviour across the country. The big teen v teen battle in The Hunger Games is actually quite brutal at times, in part due to the fantastic camerawork, but it doesn’t get close to the grisly impact of Fukasuku’s movie (which, relevantly, pulls no punches with its satire).
But there are many more. The TV-obsessed Capitol nods to Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man, adapted from the pulp Stephen King novel of the same name. There are shared ideas with Daniel Minahan’s brilliant dark comedy Series 7: The Contenders, which deals with a similar last-man standing reality TV conceit (and that’s another film which packs far more vitriol into its satire). The bread and circuses theme recalls the 70s classic Rollerball. Last, but not least, the premise of a CCTV-filled arena that can be artificially altered by a group of architects headed up by an egotistical controller playing God is straight out of The Truman Show.
My point isn’t to suggest that The Hunger Games is nothing but an expensive rip off, as I believe it to be much more than a collection of the best ideas from a bunch of other films. However, my main reservation is that all those films mentioned above tackle their central ideas in a much more satisfying fashion. Perhaps they could afford to engage with certain concepts to a greater degree, given that they are aimed solely at adults. The Hunger Games, by comparison, is presumably aimed at both adults and 12 or 13-year-olds.
Despite its long-ish running time, The Hunger Games is a satisfyingly taut film. My attention levels never dipped throughout, and despite some frustrations with its predictability (if anyone fails to guess the three candidates that are left standing for the final battle I’ll eat my laptop), I was left wondering where the story would go next (as is de rigeur it is set up for the sequel with a slightly clumsy scene or two tacked onto what would otherwise have been a satisfactory ending).
It’s probably most thrilling when the bloody battles begin, with a race for safety that (it’s worth saying again) really does recall the opening blows of Battle Royale. By and large the action sequences are believable, although the conditioning of these otherwise peaceful children into hardened killers is a little hard to stomach, as is the fact that they are supposedly from poor, starving communities yet display the kind of healthy teeth, skin and muscle tones that can only be attained from steadfastedly living the good life in California. Still, certain behavioural patterns displayed by the characters are believable (a little Lord Of The Files style tribalism is a neat but swiftly ditched touch).
It’s a shame that in such a long film the characters – save for Katniss and Peeta – are not developed sufficiently. Harrelson and Tucci go for outlandish caricatures which are fun but ultimately unfulfilling, whereas Donald Sutherland can only demonstrate how sinister and ruthless his President Snow is while wandering around a fairly pleasant-looking garden: his brutal treatment of some hardy perennials is the worst we see from this supposed villain. Those supporting players in Katniss and Peeta’s district really suffer, though: once the lead characters are whisked off to the Capitol the film completely forgets about Katniss’ bereaved mother, her whiny little sister and her potential love interest across the next two films (didn’t catch his name, but it’s presumably Evan Steakhunter or Josh Eversolemn or something like that) until they pop up again at the end. Wahey! They’re still alive! And they’re still starving!
Lawrence is the star of the show, and she is certainly an engaging hero. I wouldn’t compare her performance to that magnificent turn in Winter’s Bone, but she certainly has a lot on her shoulders here and she proves that she can carry a big blockbuster like this, even if there is a little too much frowning and glaring to convey emotion. This performance is not the one that marks her out as being a leading actor of the future (shit, of the present I guess), but it won’t damage her reputation at all. Hutcherson, who probably has the most screen-time after Lawrence, is a little forgettable, unfortunately. To be fair he is portraying a character that is very much second fiddle to Katniss, but I rarely found myself caring about his plight, even when directly asked to.
Overall, The Hunger Games is an enjoyable yarn that perhaps could have taken a couple of risks to truly mess with the heads of its viewers or make caustic statements about our current predilection for reality TV and our thirst for violence on the big and small screens. Still, I was impressed with the way it didn’t patronize its target audience and that it kept the silliness to a minimum: there is no opening set-piece, there are no CGI sequences of characters riding around on mythical beasts and there are no cities smashed to smithereens, which is proof that films can still be made without specific formulas being followed. The CGI is quietly effective but The Hunger Games does not rely on its special effects whatsoever; there is a clear confidence that interest will be piqued by the story and the acting.
Best of all, however, is the way the film treats the subject of violence. The brutal teen versus teen acts that take place are central to the film, but Ross gets it all just right. The film doesn’t celebrate violence, but neither does it shy away from showing it. That said, it cleverly fools you into thinking you have seen more than you actually have. Despite being a film that is really for teenagers, it has a far more mature approach to violent acts than countless films made for those above the age of 18. This engaging escapist fantasy is smarter than average, and perhaps could have done with some fine tuning, but overall I felt like it was two hours well spent. There aren’t many blockbusters I’ve seen lately that I could say the same thing about.
Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Suzanne Collins, Gary Ross, Billy Ray
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci
Running Time: 142 Minutes