The Hunger Games
I am man enough to admit when I'm wrong. During the height of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games novels, I had brushed them off as teenaged melodrama along the lines of Stephanie Meyers' abominable Twilight novels and films. Word of mouth can be a powerful force, however, and after several friends and relatives expressed surprise over the film's quality, I decided to give it another look.
I realize I'm extremely late to the party for both the film and the book it is based on, but The Hunger Games is nothing like what I'd imagined it to be. It's a complex action-drama, a frightening, futuristic cautionary tale, and a damn good film.
For those of you (like me) who have been living under a rock and somehow managed to avoid The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a teenager from District 12. Like everyone in the twelve districts of Panem, the nation formed after a civil war tore America apart, Katniss lives a life of poverty with her mother and younger sister, Primrose, to whom she is very much like a parent in the absence of a strong father figure.
In order to keep the districts in line, each year a competition is held - the titular Hunger Games - in which two "tributes" are chosen to fight to the death for the pleasure of the Capitol's privelaged populace. When Prim is selected to compete, Katniss steps forward to protect her baby sister and volunteers to enter the competition, along with the other chosen member of her district, Peeta Mellark.
The first thing you'll notice about Katniss is she's a strong female heroine, the like of which is rarely shown in cinema. She's not a damsel in distress, waiting for a stronger male character to come and rescue her (though she does get some help from Peeta, and others). She's more akin to Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ellen Ripley from the Alien films - a strong woman thrust into a terrible situation, who uses her wits, cunning, and sheer force of will to survive.
The similarities to Richard Connell's seminal short story The Most Dangerous Game are apparent, but the events in the book, and thus the film, are differentiated by an even more disturbing twist. The games are a horrific spectacle for the rich and powerful, and though they manipulate them from the safety of high-tech control rooms, they never take part.
The Hunger Games is only rated PG-13, and that's probably a good thing. I'd heard some griping that it would have been better if it were R, but the opening melee for supplies is gruesome enough. The film does a wonderful job of implying violence, but not necessarily showing all the gory bits; handling the subject of teenagers and, in some cases, pre-teens killing each other in cold blood with care. Director Gary Ross does an excellent job of not glorifying the violence, and this is important because, unlike The Most Dangerous Game, where the hunter becomes the hunted by the story's end, the true villains of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games universe do not participate in the events.
It's easy to point to Alexander Ludgwig's Cato, the athletic and antagonistic clear favorite from District 2, as the film's villain, but the truth is that even though Cato relishes the idea of hunting other tributes for sport, he's still part of someone else's sick game. At several points during the film, the action shifts to the confines of the control room where Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, of American Beauty fame) and his team of engineers manipulate the games, often at the behest of President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). It's a reminder that the true villains are the ones pulling the strings from a safe distance, not the kids fighting for survival.
Surviving the Games not only requires strength, but cunning as well. Politics are a large part of the story, and Katniss quickly learns that she is at the mercy of those behind the proverbial curtain. The film's ending, which mirrors the book's (or so I'm told), sees Katniss showing up the government, and will undoubtedly have consequences in the sequel. These are two examples of the many layers that make The Hunger Games significantly better than other contemporary teen-driven action stories.
I can't end this review without giving a brief nod to co-stars Elizabeth Banks as the somewhat unhinged and ghastly-looking Effie Trinket, a solid performance from Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, one of Katniss and Peeta's coaches who teaches them the politics of the game, the always dependable Stanley Tucci as announcer Caesar Flickerman, who plays the perfectly pandering host with all the mock sincerity and concern you'd expect, and Woody Harrelson as former Hunger Games victor-turned-drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson, in particular, gives a fabulous performance, providing some comic relief that belies his intelligence, proving once again that he is one of America's most undervalued character actors.
I may not be able to judge The Hunger Games against its source material (though I do plan to read the novels this year), but even without an ingrained affection for it, I can honestly say I enjoyed the film thoroughly. The complexity of the story, the strong characters, and yes, the harrowing action all coalesce into a film that goes far beyond big budget, summer popcorn entertainment. This is one of very few cases where I was more than happy to be wrong.