Following in the footsteps of Stephen King’s The Long Walk and The Running Man (both published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian society where teenagers take part in a deadly annual game held by a totalitarian group of leaders. Well-received amongst its young adult audience, Lionsgate Entertainment has adapted the first novel of the trilogy, with Gary Ross at its helm.
The Hunger Games takes place in the not-too-distant future, where the country Panem – formed out of what was North America – is split into twelve Districts and a Capitol. In the 74th edition of The Hunger Games – an annual event where two representatives from each District between the ages of 12 and 18 are forced to eliminate their competitors with the aim of being the sole survivor – sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister after she is selected. Joined by her male counterpart Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), she is soon pitted against representatives who have trained for the Games their entire lives.
Playing on humanity’s desensitisation to violence on screen and the scopophilic nature of reality as entertainment, the Games are reminiscent of – and certainly inspired by – the processions and sporting events held during the Roman Republic and Empire, as well as the myth of the Minotaur. Particularly referencing gladiatorial games, the Capitol uses The Hunger Games to control any mutterings of military threat through an effective means of self-promotion while raising morale and offering exciting entertainment to their people. Indeed, the Capitol annually destroys any semblance of class warfare by providing a lavish and extravagant event that places all of its competitors – from all of its different districts – on an “equal” playing field.
But the dissention is there; the pained families fully understand the Games are a form of suppression, and the teenagers eligible in outer Districts – including Katniss and friend/hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – find little to admire about the spectacle when their lives are already so tragic.
The irony is that they all must watch the Games, and those in the inner Districts and Capitol seem to lap it up. The film pointedly confronts the organic evolution of reality television as entertainment as the competitors are paraded in front of a voracious crowd and interviewed on a talk show hosted by the flamboyant Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). Cutaways to the desensitised and blood-thirsty audiences are used similarly to those in Metropolis and The Set-Up, playing on our natural draw to voyeurism and to show humanity at its least admirable.
The Hunger Games enjoys exploring the inner-workings of the public spectacle and the keys to succeeding in the deadly game – delivered with a self-reflexive approach. Katniss and Peeta are guided by previous winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) on how to best manipulate and win over viewers and potential sponsors; sympathetic stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) explains how important appearance is during the pre-Games events, and Peeta is at one point congratulated by the mentoring team for introducing a love angle into the mix. The film expertly sets up the moral ambiguity of the Games and satirises the cultural reaction to the deadly contest.
But after an utterly claustrophobic sequence where Katniss and Peeta are finally sent out to the battleground, the potential impact of any of the themes or ideas previously set up quickly fizzle out. Few contestants are given any development and many of their actions are either lazily explained or deeply implausible. This, combined with a presentation that avoids showing many of the deaths – influenced by the film’s need for a lower rating – means the viewer is as disengaged from the deaths as the people of the Capitol. The filmmakers are perfectly happy to plot this cruel storyline, but not its harrowing consequences.
Even worse is the lack of evolution in the characters during the Games (except for a baffling turn from a barely seen participant), particularly in Katniss. With a widowed mother almost unable to function and little sister Primrose (Willow Shields) too delicate to fend for herself, Katniss has been the strong figure of her family for a number of years. Nevertheless, she would suffer from a growing wariness and horror of participating in such a bloody competition. But it is barely seen here, and Katniss never has to make a morally questionable decision. Indeed, the one scene where the gravity of a kill weighs down on her is soon disregarded. In Katniss, there is no indication of growing suspicion, draining hope, moral ambiguity, or loss of humanity.
Still, The Hunger Games is a visually creative and interesting feature, with jump cuts and first-person shots creating a sense of urgency and chaos to its action sequences. Gary Ross has constructed the film around the subjective perspectives of its characters and creates some wonderfully unique moments, particularly one involving hallucination. The hand-held camerawork is, at times, jarring and the editing of some action scenes makes it difficult to fully grasp who is fighting who, but it matches the frenetic nature of the Games.
The cast are all impressive; Jennifer Lawrence once again dominates the screen with another stunning performance. She brings both a toughness and vulnerability to the rounded protagonist. Josh Hutcherson is also admirable for bringing layers to the underdeveloped love interest Peeta; while his motivations are never fully understood, Hutcherson makes him a genuine character. Other standouts are Stanley Tucci as the extravagant talk show host Caesar Flickerman, and Woody Harrelson as the humorous but deeply affected mentor Haymitch.
The Hunger Games is a smart satire and tight thriller that soars above many other big-budget blockbusters of recent times. There are a number of spectacular visual moments and the scope of its story and themes means the lengthy running time is fully deserved. However, the film suffers from its lack of depth in the feelings and motivations of its characters, and any potentially lasting impact is ultimately lost.