The Hunger Games
Directed by Gary Ross
Written by Gary Ross, Billy Ray, and Suzanne Collins; Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland
Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens
Running Time of 142 Minutes
There are times when one must admit to a certain amount of bias when writing about a film. I am a fan of The Hunger Games novels, and have been for some time. When approaching a film as a fan, you have to be careful. On the one hand fans are perhaps more likely to scrutinize every last detail that isn’t exactly the same as the source. On the other hand, fans are perhaps more forgiving when it comes to seeing a story they love portrayed on the big screen. As with all of my writing, I approached The Hunger Games with my mind as open and unbiased as possible. I have looked at it as a film first, and any comments I make about the film as an adaptation will not be on a comparative basis but rather speak to how certain adaptive elements work to the success of the film. And, yes indeed, I liked Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games very, very much.
Gary Ross is an exceedingly smart filmmaker. (Be sure to check out my retrospective on his work here.) The world of Panem (the remnants of the old United States) is a harsh, dystopian society divided into 12 Districts and the Capitol, an opulent metropolis filled with very “fancy” rich people. Every year, 24 children from the various districts are thrust into an arena and they must fight to the death in an epic televised event. In order to hook viewers into believing this unfamiliar world, Ross has taken the best possible approach. Instead of creating a spectacle or focusing on the grandeur, The Hunger Games is as naturalistic and level-headed as this type of filmmaking gets. District 12, where our main characters Katniss and Peeta reside, has a distinctly Appalachia flair that feels sadly authentic. Ross and his Director of Photography Tom Stern shake and move their camera freely, and they establish a certain documentary-esque grit. Instead of being over-the-top or silly, Ross treats everything entirely seriously and very matter of fact. What you see is what you get, and this tone is far more difficult to achieve than you might expect. It allows one to become wholeheartedly invested in the world of the film, and world-building in this type of science fiction is of the utmost importance.
The Hunger Games is a film that deals with big ideas in a very subtle and thoughtful fashion. It would have been easy to make this film pander to children, but instead we are treated with an intelligent and fairly complex film that unveils its ideas with restraint. The film works as both social and political satire, and the anti-government rebellion that unfolds in the further installments of Collins’ trilogy is hinted at beautifully. Though an event like the Games may seem outlandish to our current society, one must only look to television programs like Survivor or American Idol to see that perhaps it isn’t so far from the truth after all. The host of the Games, as it were, hilariously portrayed by Stanley Tucci, feels like he walked right off the set of any number of shows currently airing on television. The lives of “real” humans are constantly put on tv as spectacle for the masses, and though the implications are not nearly as deep as those in this film, we can understand where they are coming from. Though it can admittedly be entertaining, reality television is potentially dangerous and is eating us from the inside.
Even more than that, though, The Hunger Games is a film about personal responsibility and sacrifice for the greater good. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen from District 12, is a strong and independent woman who has long taken care of her family back home. When she volunteers in her sister’s place to compete in the Games, she is making a loud and clear statement. Though the entire cast of the film is strong, from Josh Hutcherson’s charming Peeta to Lenny Kravitz’s warm Cinna to Woody Harrelson’s roguish drunkard Haymitch and beyond, this is the Jennifer Lawrence show through and through. Ross very smartly allows her breathing room to do her work, and although Lawrence is tough as nails and has tremendous presence, she also crafts Katniss with great depth and nuance. The film entirely rests on her shoulders and she is every bit as good as she was in her oddly similar Academy Award nominated role in Winter’s Bone. Katniss begins to become a woman all of Panem looks up to and her choices and motivations begin to instill hope and thoughts of independence. Though there are flirtations and romance with Peeta and thoughts of her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) back home, Katniss is defined by her own actions and not by her male suitors. She is an inspiring and frankly awesome character.
The first half of the film is spent setting up the world and in training, and it isn’t until the second half that the Games begin. The pacing is effortless, never slowing down but also giving plenty of time to establish character and the subtleties of the world. Once the Games begin, things take a turn for the violent but as is consistent with the tone of the film Ross never sensationalizes it or makes a spectacle of it. The violence is strong but not gory, and used in small doses it has great impact. With each knife cut or blow, the slowly brewing unrest becomes easier and easier to identify with. These are children fighting to the death for “entertainment,” after all, but it never feels as if these moments are played for entertainment. They are deadly and appropriately serious. As the Games unfold, too, we are granted opportunities that we never were in the novel. Collins’ book is told in the first person, and we only know what Katniss knows or speculates about. Here, co-writers Ross, Billy Ray, and Collins herself beautifully expand the world and our knowledge base in subtle and clever ways. Moments spent with Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) in the control room or with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), or shots of the Capitol or the various Districts as they watch the game add to the emotion and impact of the event. As we see an entire control room of technicians manipulate the arena, or the members of District 11 react to an unfortunate event in a very powerful scene, suddenly everything seems all the more dark and cynical than it did in the novel. Stanely Tucci’s Ceasar Flickman alongside Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones) are cleverly and sparingly used as commentators for the games that both serve in moments of necessary exposition but also as the harsh reminder that everything we are witnessing is being aired on television for all to see.
Perhaps the film’s greatest trick, however, is its use of perspective, imagery, and sound design. Though the film does expand on the world of the novel, it also uses very smart camera-work and sound design to take us inside Katniss’ head in the arena. It makes for a visceral, personal, and immediate experience that cannot be matched by words on a page. A hallucinatory sequence is a particular standout that brilliantly marries sound and imagery. The film is beautifully designed and thought out, from the costume choices to the selection of location, to James Newton Howard’s appropriately subdued score, that all reflect the restrained tone. If some of the CGI is a bit subpar, it can be forgiven as one of the film’s only major issues. Thankfully most of the effects work is done the old-fashioned way.
As an adaptation and, more importantly, as a film The Hunger Games is a rousing success. It is thoughtful science fiction of the best kind that leaves our heads buzzing and makes a true impact. The film is immaculately designed and strikes the perfect balance in both tone and its great performances. Best of all, it leaves us wanting more. The rumbling sounds of the canons and the haunting tune of the Mockingjays still linger in my head. Come back soon, Katniss.