Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Image from IMP Awards

The Hunger Games (2012)

Films that are better than the book are, apparently, an almost mythical breed - a supposed truism that I take objection to, and one that the film adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins' 'Hunger Games' trilogy goes some way towards disproving. I picked up the book with a little reluctance, worried that it would be another shallow Twilight-esque phenomenon; I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a genuinely interesting and compelling science fiction story, as is the film.

It's the future, and the United States is no more. What's left is a nation state composed of a totalitarian Capitol and 12 subservient 'Districts', each at a varying level of economic prosperity. Katniss Everdeen, played by the terrific Jennifer Lawrence, is a teenage girl in the poverty ridden district 12 who illegally hunts game to provide for her mother and younger sister. From the outset we see that she is resourceful and possesses a steely eyed determination, attributes Lawrence captures perfectly without appearing cold or aloof. The story's complex protagonist and her portrayal are without question the film's biggest strength (so much so that the NY Times did an interesting piece on her here).

Day to day survival in District 12, depicted as a stark and hopeless commune by director Gary Ross in the film's early scenes, isn't the only problem its denizens face. Every year, as punishment for a failed uprising against the Capitol, each District must offer a randomly picked teenage boy and girl as 'tributes' to take part in the 'Hunger Games', a televised rules free battle to the death within a large controlled environment where only one can emerge victorious (this gladiatorial spectacle is one of several allusions to ancient Rome). When her sister is picked, Katniss volunteers to take her place and is whisked off to the opulent Capitol together with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (a bland but adequate Josh Hutcherson) to prepare for the games... and certain death.

The first half of the film is the lead up to the games themselves and takes place primarily in the Capitol, which is depicted as garish, gaudy, and full of excess. The designs are outlandish and the lifestyle is luxurious, the complete opposite of the suppressed Districts - an unsubtle but nonetheless effective depiction of a society of extreme inequality. Our primary representative of the Capitol is Effie Trinket, played to perfection by Elizabeth Banks, the shrill and shallow escort for District 12's tributes. Effie is part of the tributes' support team, which also includes their stylist Cinna - a solid Lenny Kravitz - and their trainer Haymitch, a former Games survivor from District 12, brought wonderfully to life by Woody Harrelson as a gruff and comical but ultimately caring ruffian.

Collins' novel and her screen adaptation don't stop at being an allegory for the injustices of inequality, they also lampoon a culture of excess and superficiality, and this is highlighted perfectly in the way the Games are treated as a reality TV show. The tributes have to take part in a training regimen and impress potential sponsors who may provide them with resources during the games. Part of the likelihood of sponsorship rests on how popular the tribute is, where popularity is gained by being fashionable, extravagant, likable and willing to tell personal stories to endear themselves to viewers. Katniss is forced to compromise who she is to entertain the masses for the sake of her family and her District as well as her life, a recurring theme that is handled with admirable subtlety by director, write, and actor.

When the Games proper begin the film dips slightly as the second half, taking place as it does almost entirely in nondescript woods, can't quite match the variety and depth of the first. It's a battle for survival, mildly reminiscent of Battle Royale (which I reviewed here a few years ago!) but lacking that films nuanced portrayal of minor supporting characters.

Gary Ross's elegant and restrained style gives way to a little too much shaky camera work and quick cut editing, presumably necessitated by the requirement to minimise the child against child violence displayed on screen. When it works it's effective, such as the opening of the Games where a bloodbath occurs as the tributes fight for resources. Ross constructs scenes that take their time and are fleshed out, with actors given the opportunity to convey thoughts and emotions without dialogue. This is a real film and not a cheap cash in, although its 'relatively small for a blockbuster' budget does show in the so-so special effects.

The Games are a case of surviving against the elements as much as they are about combat and strategy - a real game of cat and mouse in the woods, as it were, where finding food, water, and shelter are as important as surviving encounters with other tributes. This segment of the film is exciting and brutal, well paced while still leaving time for character moments and plot twists along the way.

The screenplay diverges from the book at points but only slightly, excising unnecessary prolonged sequences during the Games that frankly would have been uncinematic. It also - thankfully - tones down the faux/real romance between Katniss and Peeta and the potential love triangle involving her hunting partner back home, Gale (a bland Liam Hemsworth). The character interplay between the two District 12 tributes is subtler and less cringe inducing than in the book.

Despite minor deviations, and the screenplay is incredibly true to the source material, even when it sometimes amalgamates different moments and transposes others. There are some additions to the book as well, ones that serve to elevate the material to the realm of socially relevant sci-fi. These include goings on behind the scenes involving the menacing President (Donald Sutherland) and the naive showman running the games, Seneca (Wes Bentley) as well as certain events in other districts that are triggered by Katniss' defiance in the arena.

While the film doesn't end with a sense of finality - unsurprising since there are two more books in the trilogy - it is still fairly self contained and satisfactory. I'm not sure how this story continues and am a tad trepidatious as the first act has a lot to live up to. As it stands, however, 'The Hunger Games' is intelligent and exciting science fiction that marries ideas, action, spectacle, and human drama together to create a rewarding cinematic experience, one that is anchored by a star making central performance.

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