The hype surrounding The Hunger Games has been unavoidable. Based on the incredibly popular series of young adult novels, Lionsgate is clearly hoping for a franchise of Twilight-like proportions (although THG is, from what we hear, very different to the sparkly vampire series). We’ve never read the books so we were excited to see what it was that had connected with so many people.
The future. America has become the state of Panem. Every year two tributes are chosen from each district to compete in The Hunger Games, a televised battle to the death. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from District 12 volunteers to replace her sister, and is thrust into a world in which the tributes are groomed and promoted as reality TV competitors before they have to battle each other while the world watches. Can Katniss keep her integrity and win the games?
As we haven’t read the books, we can’t do a compare and contrast. We can only criticise the film as a stand-alone entity. With that out of the way, let’s begin.
The world of the film is an enjoyably strange hybrid. There’s the metropolis in which the games are created with its camp and insane costumes, wigs, and make-up. But the film starts in the outlying districts, where the people are hungry; bartering the animals they catch themselves and offering themselves up to “The Reaping”. So while we have Stanley Tucci in a blue wig and false teeth, Wes Bentley wearing a fantastically intricate beard, and Elizabeth Banks made up like a doll that’s already had too many coats of paint, there’s also Lawrence hunting and killing small animals like she’s just stepped off the set of Winter’s Bone.
It’s impossible to understate the importance of Lawrence to this film. At 140-odd minutes, the film is overlong and it takes itself incredibly seriously even as the (slightly) more outlandish science-fiction elements creep in. The committed, grounded and intense performance from Lawrence keeps the audience onside and involved in the story during any lags. The film works best during its first half, as Katniss and fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) struggle to reconcile their preparations for survival with the need to be appealing enough for sponsorship. It is, of course, a pointed dig at reality TV, where making a connection with the audience at home and making friends with the people in charge is just as important as any skills you may have or how nice a person you are.
Once the film takes the tributes to the woods and pits them against each other, it settles into a slightly over-familiar kill-or-be-killed but don’t forget who you are scenario. Lawrence is never less than magnetic but there’s a definite choppiness to the editing of the fight sequences which makes it clear where the cuts were and took us out of the film. Having said that, some of the violence is pretty tough for a 12A. While it doesn’t go off the rails, the second half of the film is noticeably less gripping than the first.
Lawrence aside, Woody Harrelson is also on excellent form as the bitter but good-hearted former champion, Tucci has a blast as the beaming TV show host, and Banks and Lenny Kravitz do good work as District 12’s image consultants. Hutcherson (The Kids Are Alright) is solid enough but makes less of an impression as the weaker Peeta, Donald Sutherland murmurs menacingly as the evil President Snow, and Bentley gives a solid turn as the games master with some nasty tricks up his sleeve.
It’s not a particularly unfamiliar story, but it’s an interesting and entertaining spin that manages to recall a lot of 1980s survival science fiction (and surpasses some of it) and, in Katniss Everdeen, gives us a heroine worth rooting for. It’s a bit long and it does loosen its grip on the audience during the second half, but it’s an often very tense thriller that is certainly a refreshing break from the typical teenage blockbuster.
The Hunger Games doesn’t quite deliver on its promise but it’s an interesting, entertaining and well-acted blockbuster that’s impressively bleak for a younger audience.