Following a rebellion, the government of Panem has created the annual hunger games as a means of both punishment and reward. From each of the 12 districts of the nation come two “tributes,” aged 12 to 18, selected by lottery, one male, one female. In a large arena they will be pitted against each other until only one is left alive. This will be televised, complete with expert commentary, to the masses. The winner will be feted with riches. Perhaps the best reason for the existence of the games is spoken by the president, (Donald Sutherland): “A little hope can be effective. A lot of hope can be dangerous.”
We only see two of the districts. District 12 is in what was Appalachia, full of coal mines and poverty (apparently, Panem forgot about the bread part). Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the daughter of a deceased miner, supplements her meager table by being an expert hunter. Her younger sister is in her first year of eligibility for the games, but her odds are low (like the NBA draft lottery, the system is weighted by certain factors). But indeed the younger sister is chosen, and Lawrence immediately volunteers to take her place.
Also chosen is Peeta Millark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son. He has long had an unspoken crush on Katniss, and the two had a moment when he took pity on her and threw her an old piece of bread. As the games go on, they will fall in love, although, intriguingly, they pretend to at first just to make their stories more interesting, which gets them sponsors to provide them extras for the games.
The other place we see is the Capitol, which is in stark contrast. It is kind of an Emerald City, full of wonder where the people wear flamboyantly colorful apparel and wigs. Lawrence and Hutcherson are wined and dined as they are prepared for the games, where they will have a 23 out of 24 chance of dying.
The book, one of a trilogy and a publishing sensation, is for young adults but contains some grown-up ideas, especially about totalitarian governments and the human craving for violence. The author, Suzanne Collins, says she got the idea while flipping channels and seeing, in short order, a reality game show (presumably Survivor) and footage of the Iraq War (one might cynically suggest she had seen the Japanese film Battle Royale, which is in many ways similar).
The film version, directed by Gary Ross, is a disappointment. Like many films based on beloved books, it is reverent to the point of being suffocated by its source material. As with the book, one waits impatiently for the games to begin, as we get a lot of preparation, including exposition on the rules, etc. The film is a bit long at 142 minutes, and could have used some trimming.
Mostly, though, Ross is a bad choice for the material. His milieu is bland, middlebrow entertainment like Seabiscuit, and I suppose the producers of this film simply wanted to make sure no mistakes were made as they reap the whirlwind. The box office and “A” Cinemascore indicates they have done that. But for those of us who expected to be more challenged by the material, Ross is like a musician who hits all the right notes but doesn’t get the passion of the piece.
As it is, The Hunger Games is acceptable as a megaplex blockbuster. I’m not sure how those who haven’t read the book will respond. For those who have, almost everything is here. Lawrence and Hutcherson are given handlers, including a sort of publicist (Elizabeth Banks), a stylist (Lenny Kravitz), and a mentor (Woody Harrelson), who won the games previously. In his first scene, Harrelson is drunk and expresses no interest in helping the kids, but later will be a kind of comic relief as he exhorts Lawrence to victory. Harrelson is fun to watch, but there’s no reason given for his transformation.
I’ve loved Sutherland since he appeared in MASH, and he does a fine job here of a twinkly yet murderous president, but it’s hard to hear his voice anymore without thinking of his ads for airlines and oranges. Stanley Tucci is appropriately over the top as the Ryan Seacrest of the games, adorned in a purple suit and blue wig. As for the leads, Lawrence and Hutcherson are bland. Lawrence physically embodies the role, convincing us that she really could survive in the woods by eating squirrels (one can’t help but think back to her in a similar situation in Winter’s Bone), but the character is so taciturn that there isn’t much call for emotion. In the book she narrates, so there’s a lot of internalizing that can’t be expressed. Late in the film, though, when Katniss begins to rebel in her own way (such as by adorning one of the fallen children with flowers) we can begin to see Lawrence breaking through a bit.
As for the violence, as in the book, much of it is off-screen. Most of the bloodshed happens in montage. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the editing of this scene, nor of the entire film for that matter. Maybe my own blood lust demanded more. But many of the deaths are perpetrated through out-thinking opponents, such as the clever use of a hive of wasps.
I’m sorry that The Hunger Games team didn’t take a more daring approach to presenting the material. This will satisfy many, and that’s fine, but I would have liked to see more creativity.
My grade for The Hunger Games: C+.