Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci
Spoilers Within: No
Originally posted 3rd April 2012 on Letterboxd.
As Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence has filled the mud-crusted boots of a character that will, in a war between Twilight and The Hunger Games, emerge a victor. Parallels can and will be made between Suzanne Collins’ dystopic science fiction trilogy and Stephanie Meyer’s series of bestial love novels, but where the love-triangle ends, so do the similarities.
The Hunger Games starts off in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem, in time for us to be witness to the ‘Reaping’; the annual selection of contestants, or ‘tributes’, for the 74th Hunger Games tournament. The rules state that one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts under the Capitol be chosen to fight to the death against 23 other tributes. The winner inherits food and necessities for their district, their lives, and crucially, the lives of their families, the motivation which drives Katniss to succeed.
Where Twilight‘s Stewart fails to emote on even a basic level, Lawrence here hits all the emotional beats demanded of her: from gleeful at the sight of a loaf of bread; to fearful during her final moments of freedom as the countdown to the games begin. Katniss is reminiscent of another of Lawrence’s characters; her Oscar-nominated turn as Ree in Winter’s Bone. Both are the self-sufficient, matriarchal figure of their family, and both are forced into a dangerous environment with seemingly one outcome. Lawrence shows off her talent and promises a successful career as both character-actress and stalwart of what could potentially be a huge blockbuster franchise.
It’s not just Lawrence’s show, however, as the first hour is a showcase of great talent ranging from Elizabeth Banks’ thoroughly unpleasant escort, Effie; Woody Harrelsons’ effortlessly entertaining – albeit drunk – mentor, Haymitch; and Stanley Tucci’s slimy, insincere chat-show host, Caeser. It’s in these characters that the film finds a unique voice, blurring the lines between what we deem to be acceptable in an era of reality TV. The contestants are groomed, plucked and given makeovers, all for the enjoyment of the baying crowds of the neon steampunk Capitol; this parading of those from the poor districts giving a sinister undercurrent to something that we are all too used to outside of the cinema.
Unfortunately, once this act is over and the battle commences, the film loses its way and fails to live up to the promises made in its exciting first hour. The real problems begin after the first kerfuffle between a number of tributes, after which the remaining band of survivors fan out into the woods. What follows is a series of uncharacteristically boorish character decisions, all of which are detrimental to the tension that Ross has thus far succeeded in creating. An example of this: as Katniss scales a tree to escape from her captors, the characters see that they’d prefer to wait until dawn instead of maintaining the chase or exploiting the situation to use her as stationary target practice. It’s moments like this that undermine the thrill of the chase.
The Hunger Games not only suffers from the aforementioned character decisions but also from the several breaks in the narrative that only serve to add more layers of exposition to the prior – and concisely – explained rules. These scenes only serve in breaking up the moment to explain what is due to happen within that scene, most notably the perceived importance of the cannons. Herein lies another fundamental problem of the adapted universe: the cannons – and other facets of the tournament – are ignored almost immediately after explanation and only re-introduced when it becomes convenient to further a characters judgments later in the film.
In a film in which action is a vital chunk of the running time, these scenes were far too frenetic and shot in such an uncontrolled manner that looking away from the screen was the only way to avoid a headache, inevitably meaning that a great deal of the action was missed. The camera-work was so erratic that it was virtually impossible to make spear from arrow; a style so harmful that when you consider the suggestion of the occurring violence, the impact is significantly diminished by not being able to tell victor from vanquished.
Despite some shortcomings and frustrating plot contrivances, The Hunger Games was a welcome blockbuster in a highly over-saturated genre where strong female roles are cast into the background in favour of damsels in distress. As the concluding scene draws to an end, you’ll be left questioning the political implications of Katniss and Peeta’s final actions at the mouth of the Cornucopia.