Featured Film Reviews Reviews — 21 March 2012

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The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross
Screenplay: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley
Year: 2012
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 12A
Duration: 142 mins

The Hunger Games has been touted as the next “tween” sensation. Based on the hit novels by former children’s TV writer Suzanne Collins, the film version has been carefully marketed and ingeniously timed to fill the ravenous angst and fantasy needs of the Harry Potter and Twilight generation. One series is now done. The other is soon to have flashed its last vampy fang in brooding 12A anger.

Together the two sagas that have generated almost $10 billion in box office income (not even including DVD and TV licensing) since 2001.

That is some prize indeed.

And while Hunger Games e-backlash has already begun swirling, with some shouting and pointing to a 1990 film called Battle Royale (which also involves children forced to battle to the death by a futuristic government), there is no doubting that the adaptation has first refusal on the screaming teen mass-market.

Released in the UK on 23th March, does The Hunger Games match its hype, or will it be a failure to fire like 2007’s The Golden Compass?

The Hunger Games is directed by Gary Ross, whose last films were horse racing drama Seabiscuit (2003) and Pleasantville (1998, and a distant cousin to The Hunger Games for its themes of a TV show affecting wider society). He also wrote the 1980s smash hit Big (Tom Hanks). The gaps in his projects alone suggest that he doesn’t get on board for any old project, and add in Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role, a 21 year old already nominated for an Oscar for her part in Winter’s Bone, and already the odds look in THG’s favour…

So what is all the fuss?

The backdrop for Suzanne Collins’ creation is a near future, nearly 80 years after a “brutal rebellion” changed the face of North America. When the rebellion was defeated the country became known as “Panem”, segregated into 12 districts around its centre, a severe measure was taken to punish the districts, and remind them of the sacrifices required for peace. Drawing on the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur – not necessarily Battle Royale – Panem required that 24 “Tributes”, a boy and girl from each district, be taken from their homes, paraded to the citizens of the Capitol, and required to battle to the death in a forest until there is only one survivor.

As much as there is similarity to Battle Royale (whose sales will boom now), there is also teen-ified similarity to early Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man, and the 1970s dystopia of Logan’s Run. That said references are irrelevant, what matters is whether the story can take an idea as its own…

After a brief introduction to the history, the film begins in District 12, the coal mining and the poorest district in Panem, and as with almost all of the story, it sticks close to Catniss Everdine (Jennifer Lawrence). The punchy, slightly antisocial but hard working daughter of a miner (now deceased), Catniss struggles to feed her family and look after her young sister Primrose by hunting squirrels. She is resigned to her fate, even though her boyfriend believes they could try to make a run for it. Hanging over all their heads – besides hunger and an ineffective mother – is the impending “Reaping” – the selection of one young man and woman to be chosen to represent their district, and fight to the death in the 74th annual Hunger Games. Primrose is especially frightened, but Catniss reassures her she will be safe – her name is only in there once.

When it comes The Reaping is a traumatic day – resembling lines for concentration camps – and when the 12 year old Primrose is chosen from a bowl full of names, Catniss immediately volunteers in her place.

From that moment, everything changes.

After saying her goodbyes, Catniss is whisked away by hover-train with fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson – Journey To the Centre of the Earth; The Kids Are Alright) to the decadent Capitol. They meet their drunk mentor, and former Hunger Games winner (in a fun turn from Woody Harrelson), and are then primped and prepared to meet a braying Panem crowd. The audience, who live in colourful luxury, begin to pick their favourites and bet on the Tributes like horses. Plus, as wealthy “sponsors” can help a tribute in battle by parachuting supplies, the young victims all try to curry favour by glamourising the honour of their selection like desperate Big Brother wannabes on a gaudy talk show.

As it turns out the nervous Peeta, less skilled but strong, is more adept at getting people to like him – he even tries to get noticed by admitting – or suggesting – that he and Catniss are star crossed lovers – while Catniss is effortlessly successful at getting negative reactions. However her pugnacious style and archery expertise gradually gathers support.

While the Capitol is a socially interesting place, the meat of The Hunger Games is the battle for survival itself. Like it or not it’s what the people are waiting for, and it isn’t long before the day arises. Just as the teenagers are trying to get to grips with the enormity of what faces them, they are hovercrafted away to the underground tubes beneath the forest, and lifted in the danger zone. After a countdown, the 74th Hunger Games begin.

At this point the built up tension is released into a mix of occasionally very intense, occasionally very lonely survival against the elements and injuries in the forest. Catniss is put through what no young woman should be against the range of Tribute children – some non threatening and hiding, others the more vicious like older teens from the wealthier Districts who have trained all their lives for the Hunger Games, and consider participation a privilege.

Initially reluctant to fight, Catniss must also survive the manipulation of the Games Director, and as alliances form she becomes increasingly alone.

Surprised at her smarts and tenacity, however, she begins to develop a following in the Capitol, attracting sponsors, and gradually the powers that be – including a beardly wise Donald Sutherland – wary of her popularity and defiance, begin to adjust the rules to reduce the hope of rebellion in the watching districts, and bring the fate of fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta into their manipulation.

With the stakes battle lines drawn, The Hunger Games then barrels towards its conclusion one death after another, ending in a manner that is satisfying given the huge journey, while also setting up an intriguing political situation for the potential next instalment (to which director Gary Ross is already signed).

The Hunger Games never feels long despite its 142 minute run time, and while some elements are slightly glossed over or contrived – it takes a while for The Hunger Games to hit its stride – the story is entertaining with many touching moments amid the battle. Fans of the book will be pleased to see that the film remains rigidly true to the core story, but must recognize that some detail had to give in order to condense it for screen.

The cast are particularly excellent, ranging across the Tributes and those in the Capitol and districts (Elizabeth Banks is unrecognizable as District 12’s Capitol liaison). Jennifer Lawrence instill Catniss with believable vulnerability and toughness, Woody Harrelson grows into his mentor role and the calmly emotive Lenny Kravtiz (yes really) stands out as Catniss’ designer – their relationship touching as he gradually coaxes Catniss’ determination into more likeable qualities.

Of the glossed over elements, the setup for the ending is a little quick, and while there is a quiet chemistry between Lawrence and Hutcherson and the way Catniss and Peeta’s relationship develops is charming, beyond the struggle to survive it is hard to pinpoint why the pair would fall for each other, or whether the romance is all for the purposes of viewing Capitol audiences only. The background of the games themselves is also slightly unconvincing – evidence of the social evolution that led to these barbaric games being considered “normal” is hard to find. Similarly the motto “May the odds be forever be in your favour” – frequently repeated – never really makes much sense as a catchphrase (because once picked as a Tribute, the odds really aren’t!), but by the end the subtle shifts in political power cause ripples that nicely setup a sequel that won’t have a such “kids killing kids” primary hook to reel people in.

Overall, The Hunger Games is an engaging and intimate journey from the perspective of an innocent asked to do something terrible to survive. It is a bold subject for a 12A film, with no fantasy elements like magic, werewolves or vampires to hide behind. For those concerned about this, the emphasis is on survival as well as murder, but death is not an avoided topic. There is violence on screen, but it is mostly handled … evasively, and a rushed introduction to the District world can be forgiven due to the sheer quantity of story to pack in.
The end result is an interesting futuristic twist on the Theseus legend. The Running Man for the modern powerhouse of movie audience demographics – the early teens – but with enough substance to be engaging for the rest of us.

It is unlikely to be as successful as the Harry Potter or the Twilight series for its lack of magic wonder or basic teen broodiness. The Hunger Games is much more universal and satirical and concept more harrowing without the fantasy sheen.

But The Golden Compass it is not. Far from it. The Hunger Games is a high concept story that is well worth the hype and here to stay. The real test for its longevity will be its sequel, when the high concept will no longer be new, and the characters, political struggle and gradual resistance from the districts – all delicately set up here – will have to take on the heavy lifting.

An intense but accessible journey into a harrowing world.

Jonathan Guyett

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