Release date: March 21st, 2012
Running time: 2 hours and 22 minutes
Written by: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray
Based on: The novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins
Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, and Donald Sutherland
Adaptations of popular novels are nothing new to film. But the idea of taking novels aimed at (and starring) preteens/teens has really gained prominence in the last few years. The biggest and best example of this is the Harry Potter series. These were films which were well-made, imaginative, fun, box office hits, and had a genuinely interesting story with characters we really did like. After that, the quality bar dips tremendously. The Twilight films may have managed to repeat the box-office success of the Potter series, but they’ve also been trashed by critics as being complete juvenile trash. Beyond that, you have a string films which seemed to come and go, leaving little impact at the box office or with critics. These include Eragon, The Golden Compass, and Percy Jackson. But it seems a new film has come along to join the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight at the top of the box-office charts. That new film being an adaptation of Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games differs from it’s contemporaries in that it isn’t at all a fantasy film. It actually falls more into the realms of science fiction. The film takes place in a world where a new government has taken over and divided the world into twelve districts, plus the capital. While the citizens in the capital enjoy a sophisticated life style, those stuck in the districts are living horrid lives. Each district specializes in a specific field (District 12 is mining for example) and the conditions of these districts are poor. The people are starving and their houses falling apart. Every year, two members from each district (one male, one female) between the ages of 12 to 18 are sent to fight in The Hunger Games, where the kids are forced to kill each other. After her younger sister is chosen, 16 year old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers herself.
I have to say that I think this is a great premise. It’s one that leaves a lot of room for interpretation and meaning. You have a story about the media’s fascination with violence, the way media can be used to control people and as a means of getting power, the dehumanization of our society, and the way the upper class pray on the lower class. Now these are all themes I’ve seen analyzed in more depth in other films, ranging from Brazil to Gladiator. But they’re still interesting themes to explore, and I respect a blockbuster that dares to take themes like these on.
The world this film creates is a dark and depressing one, but I think they achieve it with mixed results. As for as the art decoration and cinematography is concerned, they did a good job creating this world. The districts have an appropriately cold look, and the Capital is futuristic looking, while still being relatable. Costumes and make-up on the other hand was a bit of a mess. Simply put, the look of the people was ridiculous. I know it’s supposed to look goofy, but I found it very hard to take seriously and it defused the tension for me. When you’re making comedy/satire like Brazil, it works to make your characters look over-the-top and ridiculous. But when you’re making a tense survival/thriller, it’s best you don’t go down that road.
The first half of the film is actually the best part. We’re introduced to the characters and to the world. We see the horrible conditions that Katniss and the people of District 12 are forced to put up with, we meet the other participants in the games, we learn about the games themselves, we’re brought to the Capital, and we’re introduced to a ton of characters. It’s definitely slower than the second half, but it was also really atmospheric, and I enjoyed exploring the world, story, and characters. It’s in the second half that things take a big step down. The actual Hunger Games aren’t very interesting. First off, the fight scenes are shot up close with a shaky cam style, so you can’t really tell what’s going on. Moments where you should be scared for Katniss become moments where you’re just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. This really brings the film down; especially considering the second half of the film is mostly the games. There are two good action bits though, including a trippy chase scene and a set-piece involving a nest.
One thing I felt strongly missing from the Games, and the film as a whole, was a strong villain. I found myself desperately wanting a strong antagonist. The other kids in the games are either good kids like Katniss, or generic jerks. While you could call these jerks villains, they certainly aren’t very interesting ones. Donald Sutherland has a some-what villainous role as the President of the Capital. He does some shady things, but he’s mostly just in the background. I have a feeling he’ll become a major villain in the later instalments, but for now he’s little more than a presence. I’m not saying the lack of a villain cripples the film, but it would have felt more complete with one.
The cast here is mostly solid. Jennifer Lawrence is the clear stand-out as Katniss Everdeen. While I found the character itself somewhat underdeveloped, I thought Lawrence did a great job. She has a certain charisma to her and brings the right mix of intensity and fear to the part. I also really liked Stanley Tucci as a talk show host who exploits the kids in the game. I was a bit disappointed with Woody Harrelson, who plays a mentor to Katniss. Harrelson wasn’t bad, but I expected more from a character like that, particularly when played by an actor of Harrelson’s status. Josh Hutcherson is fine as a love interest, even if he doesn’t have a lot of charisma with Lawrence. I also liked seeing Wes Bentley (American Beauty) working again. No one in the film is truly bad, but outside of Lawrence and Tucci, none of the performances hit the level of “great”.
So how’s the first film in The Hunger Games series? Well, it’s a mixed bag, but that’s okay. I liked it. I have a lot of problems with it, but I do like it. I’m also curious to where this series is going to go. Besides, the first Potter film was a mixed bag too, and look how good that series turned out. Will The Hunger Games hit those heights? I doubt it, but there’s definitely room for growth.