|She's either heading for a fight to the death or a mall appearance...or maybe both.|
If you’re conscious of the outside world in really any way, by now you’re surely familiar with the phenomenon known as The Hunger Games, a trilogy of young adult novels that’s now being adapted into a series of films with so much advance buzz that it could top the Twilight franchise.
But don’t sell the experience short by chalking this one up to overzealous teenage fanaticism brought on by hunky boys and wish fulfillment. While this is another pop culture storm that started with teen readers, it is decidedly not another Twilight. It’s not all built on romance (supernatural or otherwise), it’s far less glamorous and, perhaps most importantly, while Twilight treats the love story at its center as though it’s a life or death matter, the teens that populate The Hunger Games are literally fighting for their lives.
Now the first film in the franchise is here, after months of fan anticipation, trailers, marketing and screaming teenage fans. It’s judgment day. Did director Gary Ross deliver on his adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ beloved novel? First, for the few of you who don’t know, the premise:
Sometime in the future, the nation of Panem (located where America is now) is ravaged by war. The subservient Districts rebelled against their Capitol – the center of power, wealth and privilege – and were punished with destruction, poverty, and the creation of an eternal reminder of the price of revolt. The treaty that ended the conflict included a condition that, each year, one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18 would be gathered from each of the 12 districts through a lottery known as the “Reaping.” These 24 children, known as “tributes,” would then be taken to the Capitol and made to fight to the death in a pageant known as “The Hunger Games.” The winner would be given enormous wealth and fame as a symbol of hope to the people of the Districts, while the losers would go home in body bags as a symbol of the power of the Capitol.
We pick up the story on the day of the “Reaping” for the 74th annual Hunger Games. In District 12 – a deeply impoverished place where a squirrel is considered a good meal – Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is trying to put the games out of her mind and take care of her family. Her father is long-dead, her mother is still shell-shocked by the tragedy, and her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) is too little and meek to help much. So Katniss spends her days hunting in the woods with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), selling and trading what she can at the local black market and bringing the rest home to feed her mother and sister.
Then the Reaping comes. Though it’s only her first year in the drawing, Prim is selected, and in a fit of emotion Katniss volunteers to go in her place. Just minutes later, she is whisked away to the Capitol by her official escort, the glamorous Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), alongside the male tribute from District 12, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).
In the Capitol, Katniss meets her trainer, the drunken former Hunger Games winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and her stylist, the gentle Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Being a contestant in the games makes her the center of a media firestorm led by the charismatic talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), and all the while she is watched by the imposing President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
The first half of the film is the buildup to the games as Katniss trains, learns that Peeta’s been harboring a crush on her (unless he’s just pretending to get valuable sponsors to help him in the games) and tries to cope with the enormous odds against her. The second half of the film catapults the 24 tributes, ranging from the tiny but plucky Rue (Amandla Stenberg) to the massive and arrogant Cato (Alexander Ludwig), into an arena filled with both natural and artificial threats. As days go by, Katniss and Peeta must fight to stay alive as their fellow tributes and the games’ brilliant mastermind (Wes Bentley) plot their demise.
The first thing Ross gets right – and keeps getting right throughout the film – is refusing to treat it like a blockbuster. Make no mistake, it is a blockbuster, but it would be easy for the sensational elements of the story to overtake the emotional punch of Collins’ novel. It could be the “kids killing kids for sport” movie, the movie all about the culture that loves watching all this carnage on national television. It could be all sensation and no feeling. Though the games are at the heart of the novel’s plot, they’re not the heart of the novel. Ross makes sure the film stays true to that, and thus the movie becomes about much more than the carnage in the arena.
He achieves this by never making the spectacle bigger than the people who inhabit it. Panoramic shots are few and far between. Instead he focuses on the faces: Katniss’ fire, Peeta’s angst, President Snow’s icy glare. His cinematography is character-based even amid the temptation of showing off the futuristic world around him. The world is there, and it’s vivid, but the people dominate the landscape.
The trouble with this, the only real flaw the film has, is that Ross’ handheld camera style often produces unnecessary awkwardness, particularly when it comes to action sequences. Sure, you can argue that some of that shaky-cam is being used to obscure the violence and keep the film with a PG-13 rating, but it also serves to make those moments a little hard to decipher. What’s worse, the shaky-cam tricks actually extend beyond the action sequences and into the quiet moments, where it sometimes proves even more distracting. The handheld feel can work, but this movie overdosed on it.
But even when the distracting camera has you praying for some stability, the cast grounds the film, presenting an emotional core that never stops crackling. Lawrence’s Katniss is an intense, enthralling performance. She steals scenes from almost everyone, she conquers emotional moments with ease, and she makes every look, every gesture count. It’s a character that could have so easily lapsed into melodrama, but Lawrence triumphs over that urge with a performance of tremendous depth. The entire cast is solid, but the true standouts alongside Lawrence are Harrelson, Banks and Tucci. The latter two revel in the absurdity of the characters, giving performances an audience can savor, while Harrelson gives weight to a role that could have been little more than gruff cockiness.
By the time it ends, The Hunger Games has managed to do something few films of its kind ever will: create an engaging, character-driven film with the trappings of a blockbuster that viewers of (almost) all ages can happily get lost in. It plays to its fans, but it makes it easy for newcomers to grasp. It embraces the emotional oomph that so many of Collins’ readers keep going back for, but never completely lets go of the over-the-top concepts that keep drawing new fans in. There’s a reason this film is so hot before anyone’s even seen it, but there’s also a reason why everyone will keep going back. This isn’t a fad. This is a taut, gripping and well-imagined story.