Ever since the end of the end of the Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings franchise, with Harry Potter’s end in sight too, the studios have been desperately looking to find a new epic-scale franchise that could attract masses and serve as a cash cow for years. The first obvious medium to turn to, were books. There are countless more or less successful written franchises that haven’t been put on the big screen yet. In their frantic search for a new Star Wars or a new Harry Potter the studios started to adapt several, mostly fantasy or science fiction themed novels. However, the successes were rare. For each Twilight there were several failed attempts like I Am Number Four, Jumper or, most prominently, The Golden Compass. Now with The Hunger Games, it looks like Lionsgate struck gold. It is ironic that after so many attempts it weren’t the big studios, but the smaller ones like Summit Entertainment with Twilight and Lionsgate with The Hunger Games that actually found a relatively lasting franchise.
However, while the media tries to find connections between Twilight and The Hunger Games and emphasize that the two are going for the same audiences, the similarities are a few. Indeed, both have been written by a female author, both feature a female protagonist and a love triangle of sorts. This is where it ends, though. Whatever the opinion is about Twilight, there is no denying the fact that it is a love story first and everything else second. Not so much for The Hunger Games, where, at least in the first book, there is no love story, let alone a triangle to speak of. The emphasis of the Hunger Games series has always been on its dystopian setting and the lengths people will go to, to achieve their goals as well as the toll that some deeds take on people. The Hunger Games series is set in near, not closely defined future in which the United States of America no longer exists, but instead a dictatorship called Panem took its place. Consisting of 12 Districts and a Capitol, it is a rather dour vision of the future (as it usually is in stories like this). The Districts are ruthlessly ruled by the Capitol. An attempt of an uprising against the Capitol was punished by the installation of the so-called Hunger Games. Each year, during the event called the Reaping, a girl and a boy between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each District as Tributes. They travel to the Capitol, where they are shortly trained in the arts of fighting and survival and after two weeks put into an Arena (usually a large piece of landscape) where they are supposed to fight to their deaths until only one remains alive. The nationwide televised Hunger Games serve to remind the Districts of the dark times of the rebellion. The story of the first film (and book) follows the 16-year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a skilled hunter from District 12, who volunteers to participate in the 74th Hunger Games in place of her 12-year old sister, Primrose. Together with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son from her District who has been harbouring feelings for Katniss for a long time, she travels to the Capitol to participate in the deadly games.
This premise alone sets it worlds apart from the mostly harmless world of Twilight, but also the fantasy setting of Harry Potter. From the first moments of the movie, we see that it is a different world, a far more real one. Sure, there are more than enough science fiction elements here like the lavish futuristic buildings of the Capitol and the Arena that is controlled from the outside by the Command Center where the Gamemakers can set off traps by a simple tip of a finger. However, the things are mostly kept down to earth here. There are not super-powerful weapons, inhuman strength or any other over-the-top sci-fi elements. Once in the Arena, it is just about kids going at each other with knives, spears, swords and, in Katniss’ case, a bow and arrow. Admittedly, the concept of a dystopian society that, as a punishment, lets it children kill each other in a game is not new – the Japanese novel Battle Royale (published in 1999) and its film adaptation that came a year later basically covers the same ground, albeit much bloodier. However, both versions can co-exist very well with each other. Whereas in the Japanese film the focus is primarily on the battle itself with very little known about the outside world and the circumstances, The Hunger Games’ scope is wider (in particular in the following books) and Katniss is a stronger identification figure than anyone in Battle Royale.
Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is what constitutes the main strength of the cinematic adaptation too. Lawrence can prove that her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone wasn’t a fluke. There have been some initial complaints about the casting as Lawrence is significantly older than her character and doesn’t exactly fit the description of olive skin and dark hair mentioned in the book. However, all those complaints should be silenced now. Lawrence is fantastic. She perfectly captures all that makes Katniss a strong character in the books. Far from being a cardboard character, her Katniss is a fleshed-out and fully realized person. Lawrence captures the combination of toughness and vulnerability that author Suzanne Collins has intended for the character. She carries the movie (most of which is seen from her perspective) and hits the mark in every scene.
Of course such emphasis on her character means that the others come relatively short. Her friend/potential love interest from home, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is featured just in a few scenes (though it’s just the same in the first novel) and Hutcherson’s Peeta doesn’t get much time to shine either. What is worse is that he lacks chemistry with Lawrence that is necessary for the build-up of a love triangle that is only hinted at in the movie. The supporting cast is strong, but no one gets much screentime. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, a constantly drunk, yet caring mentor to Peeta and Katniss comes out most promising along with Stanley Tucci’s slimy TV show host Caesar Flickerman. He braves his ridiculous looks, obviously a messed-up love child of George Hamilton’s tan and Karl Lagerfeld’s ponytail and delivers an interesting turn. Donald Sutherland chews the scenery as President Snow, the future main villain of the series. The evil Career Tributes from District 1 and 2 are sadly nothing more than stock characters. The biggest change, characters-wise, was Gary Ross’ decision to vastly expand the character of Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker. Played by Wes Bentley (who sports some crazy facial here), his character is only mentioned by name, but never actually appears in the novels. It was a very smart choice, though as it shows the mechanics behind the Hunger Games.
Overall, The Hunger Games is a very faithful adaptation of its source novel. However; Gary Ross did take some liberties with the presentation and most of his choices have proven to be extremely good. While in the novel the events are told exclusively from Katniss’ perspective (meaning that once in the Arena, we know nothing of the outside world), in the movie we also get to see the reactions of people in the Districts to the televised events as well as the behind-the-scenes procedures during the Games. The latter prove very interesting and shift the perspective more from a general social commentary to a direct play at the fascination of Reality TV and the audience’s craving for sensations. In the book, the whole thing is about survival, while retaining your humanity. That point is less emphasized in the film, but instead the whole craziness and inhumanity of the Games is shown. It is a slight shift, but it does speak volumes about the movie’s tone. This is smart filmmaking, not just pandering to younger fans of the novel, but also very much at adult crowds who should enjoy the media satire parts of it. Another welcome change to the novel was a much more complete and rounded off ending that the novel doesn’t have. It is a satisfying conclusion that, at the same time, leaves you wanting more.
Gary Ross’ direction is solid here, but doesn’t really deliver much unexpected. Some will complain about the shaky cam during the action scenes, but that was most likely necessary in order for the movie to achieve a PG-13 rating. Afterall, this is a film about kids ruthlessly slaying other kids. Surprisingly, it still manages to remain very faithful to the proceedings in the Arena and doesn’t sacrifice much for a lower rating. There are enough bloody and discomforting scenes here. They are never gratuitous, though and the camera is relatively quick to cut away. The latter is a good compromise. Some of the effects and costumes do, indeed, look a tad tacky, but maybe the film’s strong financial performance will allow for a higher budget to be spent next time.
With all the flaws, The Hunger Games is a very engaging and occasionally smart science-fiction film that is an extremely promising start for a new franchise. At the end, this is Jennifer Lawrence’s show as she builds a character that will most likely remain the most remember of her hopefully great career.