Transcending its young adult novel beginnings, The Hunger Games – the first in a series of films based on the popular books from author Suzanne Collins – rises above its modest trappings to become a truly great film.
Well, that’s not entirely true, but much like some of the film’s characters would say, it’s close enough to spin it into something.
The opening hour and a half of this two and a half hour film showcases some truly great filmmaking from director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), but once the film actually gets to the titular fight to the death between a bunch of youngsters, the movie loses a great deal of drama and momentum. It’s not so much that the film is ever “bad;” far from it. There’s just a major comedown just as soon as things should be picking up.
For those who live under a rock or scoff at anything at all culturally relevant or popular, the film and the book it’s based on tell the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman living in the distant future in an impoverished district of the new world of Panem. Every year, two children from each district between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected at random and offered up as “tribute” to compete in a national tradition known as The Hunger Games: a battle to the death that includes one boy and one girl from each district. After being horrified that her 12 year old sister is chosen, the hunter and gatherer Katniss volunteers to take her place alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the son of the local baker, in the biggest blood sport in the world.
Right from the opening frames, Ross does an exceptional job of making the audience feel a true sense of unease. Utilizing nearly nothing more than natural sound and lighting that go hand in hand with his grainy handheld style of filmmaking, Ross introduces us to the point where poverty runs afoul of opulence quite wonderfully. It’s transfixing and almost primal to watch as Katniss and her sister are tearfully torn apart. This isn’t your glossy and glamorous teen fare. This is an excellent form of high drama, and some of Ross best work.
When the action switches from the agrarian, hardworking, and intelligent denizens of District 12 to the refined, “civilized,” and overly comfortable world of The Capitol where the tributes train, Ross further reinforces his points by turning Collins’ page turner into a really effective treatise on America’s past and future. The production design of the film might be “retro forward” (meaning some aspects don’t look futuristic at all, while other elements seem almost incongruous), but Ross uses his visuals to add nuance to a greater argument about a world where the rich have truly gotten out of control and created a bullshit competition to instil fear in the lower classes. Whenever the film sticks to the dust bowl and the silver spoons, the film really cooks.
Even though, it’s been done to death by now, Ross also crafts one of the more interesting digs at the rise of reality television. In order to rise above their peers, some of whom trained for these games for years and have actual sponsorship deals, Katniss and Peeta are entrusted to a team of three image consultants: a garish looking handler (a nearly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks), an alcoholic, antisocial former winner with a gift for spin (Woody Harrelson), and a kind hearted stylist (Lenny Kravitz). In a sly move, Peeta makes his puppydog crush on Katniss made known on national television, much to the hard headed Katniss’ chagrin. On the other hand, Harrelson’s Haymitch seizes the opportunity to create a human interest story out of it to help save at least one of their lives, if not both.
The performances add even more to these sections of the film, especially Lawrence who outdoes her recent stellar work in Winter’s Bone and Like Crazy as a genuinely intriguing on-screen heroine. Katniss balances femininity and the need for survival in a wholly unique way, and Lawrence is the powder keg at the centre of the film set to explode. Her facial expressions and body language alone speak volumes, but unfortunately her talents sometimes causes her to out act her co-stars almost entirely, but credit should go to Hutcherson, who also delivers a career best for holding his own opposite her.
Special consideration should also be given to Harrelson, especially when awards season rolls around. His version of Haymitch might be one of the biggest deviations from the film’s source material, but the film is vastly stronger as a result of it. Instead of a fall down drunken caricature, Harrelson’s take on the character is quieter, stronger, hardened, and cynical. In many ways, his performance holds the film together. He brings a no bullshit swagger to the character, and as the film goes on it’s easy to see how great of an ally he can be to these kids despite his obvious flaws. It’s doubtful that many supporting performances will have as much of an impact this year as his does.
While everything is great as a whole, the film stumbles a noticeable amount once the it finally gets around to the competition. All of the great character notes and cultural context are almost immediately dropped because the story absolutely has to start killing off the faceless characters that no one really knows or cares about. The idea that the game is being rigged at the highest levels of power by Wes Bentley’s television executive and Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, who fear a victory from Katniss will give the poor coal mining community she’s from too much hope, is interesting and certainly relevant to today’s societal issues, but everything else that happens simply gets told in bullet points.
It’s easy to care about the plight of Katniss and Peeta, but so little is known of everyone else that it’s not very compelling to watch, especially in a sanitized for teen audiences PG-13 rated version. It’s not really nasty enough to have that much resonance beyond a horrific opening slaughter sequence. Again, since the book was a first person narrative, a lot of this makes sense, but there’s not enough meat to the actual Hunger Games for them to feel all that exciting or immediate. Also, the ending works far better on the page than it does on the screen, where it feels almost out of left field tonally but it makes perfect sense if you think about the story structure. It’s just weird.
In the end, the film will most likely make a mint at the box office, and it will find an audience with both fans of the book who are willing to overlook some slight and necessary changes (and in my eyes, betterments), and the uninitiated who might actually just be able to enjoy it for being a well made film. Comments about the ending aside, blockbuster American filmmaking rarely makes its way to the screen in this nice of a package, especially considering the pop culture juggernaut it’s arising from. The hype almost comes across as justified, but let’s just hope the next one can sustain a better tone.