Well, I don’t think any of us could have predicted that the film coming to claim the ‘Insanely Popular Young Adult Franchise’ crown from The Twilight Saga would be this good. Admittedly the bar had been set fairly low, but Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games clears it effortlessly. It introduces us to a strange universe filled with colourful characters, and manages to satirise our own rather astutely in the process. It thrusts us into the middle of a deeply unsettling teen melee, surprisingly pulling few punches and letting blood spill more often than any other recent “family friendly” fare. Most impressively, it features a central female protagonist with actual agency, and strength, and vulnerability, and is theoretically rich enough to garner its performer an Academy Award nomination (and that’s something we never said about Twilight). The Hunger Games is not just good in comparison to New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. It’s just plain good. Actually, it’s great.
That female protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, and that performer is Jennifer Lawrence, the 21-year-old who earned an Oscar nomination for her stunning lead turn in 2010’s Winter’s Bone (she should have won it too). Rather than using this gig as an easy pay check to justify her indie work, she draws from a similar well of pain in her portrayal of Katniss. With her widowed mother too depressed to do much at all, Katniss must care for her little sister Primrose (Willow Shields), and, being a skilled archer, hunt game for her starving family. It’s a tragic life, and that’s not even accounting for the fact that she will soon see (and inflict) much death in Panem’s yearly blood sport.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here. There are likely many who haven’t read the source material yet (as I hadn’t), and don’t know their Panems from their Pandoras. It is the name taken by the nation who has risen from North America’s ashes. The people of Panem’s 12 Districts are subject to an annual ‘Hunger Games’; a competition in which each District sees one boy and one girl selected via lottery to take part in a battle to the bitter end. This televised reality show – complete with colour commentary – is seemingly the only form of entertainment in this frightening hellscape, although at least it’s not as brain-deadening as Jersey Shore. The irony is that the pained families of each District fully understand that the game is used as a means of suppression; to remind them of their failed uprising against the cruel leaders in the Capitol decades earlier. But how could they possibly not tune in? Their best hope is to pray their children are not chosen for the bloody warfare.
The prayers of the Everdeen family, unfortunately, are not heeded by whatever God would allow this to occur. In her first year of eligibility, Primrose is selected for the showdown by grotesque Mistress of Ceremonies Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). In a final act of protection, Katniss volunteers in her place. She, and local baker Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are whisked to the Capitol, trained by reluctant mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), groomed by sympathetic stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), treated to extravagant meals, and even shown off on a fun-house mirror version of a late night talk show hosted by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, with the most glaring example of a character whose name sounds like slang for genitalia). It’s a pointed and eviscerating spoofery of the Hollywood flesh-parade taken to its logical conclusion: with voracious viewers literally crying out for flesh. But the pageantry doesn’t last forever. Katniss and Peeta are eventually cast out onto the battleground, and the televisual satire is toned down to make way for the violence, which here holds a serious amount of weight. These deaths actually matter, and when Katniss begins to claim lives, we see the toll they take on her too.
The Hunger Games draws from a vast history of dystopian texts, honouring elements from 1984, The Truman Show, and everything in between. Many have accused it of cribbing rather generously from Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (which similarly concerned school kids being ordered by the government to kill one another in an isolated arena) and Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders (a Survivor-style mockumentary in which innocents are drafted to a reality show where they must murder their competitors). However, it differs enough from those two films to stand proudly as its own thing; though they share core concepts as jumping off points, they’re no more the same flick than Hugo and The Artist are. A premise alone does not account for imagination and execution.
As in his Pleasantville before it, Ross has constructed a visually interesting world to complement the overarching themes of this tale. The action sequences are urgent and brutal (we’ll give a little credit to special guest second unit director Steven Soderbergh too). The screenplay, by Ross, Collins, and Billy Ray, is concise and adept at conveying all the required exposition. Though the picture is two–and-a-half-hours long, it feels earned; the story is epic, and never boring. The cast are all impressive; everyone already mentioned, as well as Aussie Liam Hemsworth who briefly appears as the kind-hearted Gale, Katniss’ love interest back home (should we be forced to pick sides, let it be known I’m already on his team). All of these elements combined equal a satisfying YA thriller, but The Hunger Games is more than that. On several occasions, it elicits spine-tingles. The moment when a too-terrified-to-speak Katniss is elevated onto the playing field; when the gravity of a certain kill weighs on our heroine; the finale’s last-minute rule change and the way it sets the scene for a devastating face-off. The Hunger Games is a smart satire and a tragic thriller, but above all it’s a movie marvel; particularly in this age when big-budget blockbusters are as vapid as the churned-out faux-reality programming we so cheerfully but thoughtlessly consume.
The Hunger Games is now showing in Australian cinemas.