There is a prevalent cliché doing the rounds when it comes to reviewing The Hunger Games. The process seems to be to make early mention of the Twilight saga then dismiss the fact that the two movies are worthy of comparison. Completely different beasts apparently. Now I don’t know about your definition of “completely different beasts” but for me any fantasy film with hints of a burgeoning love triangle that have been adapted from a series of books that have become a worldwide publishing phenomenon and gained a fanatical following particularly within the teenage demographic simply has to be compared to Twilight. Quite why so many seem determined to shy away from comparing the two is a mystery. But perhaps the Twilight saga’s staggering success leaves many reluctant to spell out the truth of the matter. That The Hunger Games is far, far superior.
In a dystopian future in which the United States of America is now known as Panem, society has been divided into two distinct camps. The privileged and wealthy, with their eccentric fashions and high-end designer living, reside in opulence and comfort in The Capitol, while the oppressed and downtrodden masses live in near-poverty under authoritarian rule in twelve surrounding districts. Each year an event known as The Hunger Games takes place, during which each district is forced to offer up one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen. These “tributes” must battle to the death in a televised tournament in which there must be one sole survivor. Think The X Factor if a Cowell putdown also came with an arrow through the jugular.
Rapidly rising star Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen, whom upon learning that her timid young sister Primrose has been selected as District 12’s Tribute, volunteers to take her place. With barely enough time to say goodbye to her family and friends, including Chris “brother of Thor” Hemsworth as possible love interest Gale, Katniss is whisked away to Panem, where along with her fellow Tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and the other 24 contestants of The Hunger Games she is groomed, styled and presented to the enraptured television audience. Under the guidance of mentor and former Hunger Games survivor Haymitch (an on-form Woody Harrelson), personal stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and eccentric escort Effie Trinket (a brilliant but under-used Elizabeth Banks) Katniss is trained and prepared to do battle in the deadly arena. And before we know it the time to fight arrives.
The Hunger Games is a film that refuses to dumb down or treat its audience, many of whom will be young to very young, with anything but respect. It is a film that takes it’s time, unafraid to adopt a leisurely pace and confident in it’s abilities to grip and entertain. From the very beginning it is apparent that this story is being presented in a thoughtful, mature way. There is no flashy credits sequence, no rousing musical score and no tie-in theme song. It is a style that is adhered to throughout, a musical score does appear intermittently but Director Gary Ross embraces the power of silence at many a moment and there is not a single instance of glorified slo-mo violence. When the battle begins the action is brutal, if sanitised for it’s younger audience. But in tone and subject matter The Hunger Games is dark. It is a film that features absolute life-ending death, and when it occurs it hits hard both visually and emotionally, pushing the PG-13 nature of the film to it’s absolute limits.
Lawrence is superb. Cementing her reputation as the most promising performer of her generation, it is a turn loaded with depth and personal resonance. During the scenes of Katniss being thrust unwillingly into the public spotlight it is impossible not to think of her own true-life experiences when she was surprise nominee for the Best Actress Oscar following her incredible performance in Winters Bone. And in one standout moment Lawrence lets Katniss’ steely exterior slip moments before she enters the arena and allows us to see the terrified teenager beneath the tough-girl façade. It is a moment of phenomenal acting that is just a tiny part of the creation of a female sci-fi character that could become every bit as iconic as Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.
To say the film is without fault would simply be false hyperbole. It is understandable why the violence, so graphic in Suzanne Collins’ adored source novel, has been watered down here. This is a film with a very defined core target audience and it is only right that they get to see the film. But when blades cut through flesh and emerge sparkling clean without a drop of blood it can be a jarring and distracting sight for those more accustomed to a bit of bloodletting on the battlefield.
The pacing is a little off at times too. The training scenes in Panem seem a little rushed, while Hunger Games scenes prove a little sluggish on occasion. Also jarring is that once Katniss enters the arena we never re-visit characters that seem to have so much invested in her success like Kravitz’ Cinna or Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket. Being unable to see how they react and are invested in Katniss’ fight for survival leaves a gaping hole in the centre of the film, but this slavish devotion to showing the audience everything from Katniss’ perspective is more a factor of the source material than the adaptation. Younger audiences may also find themselves underwhelmed by a film that favours the thoughtful over the bombastic but it is this very restraint and subtlety that is such a surprising and pleasing factor of the film.
The Hunger Games has important things to say about media and celebrity and highlights the perverse nature of forcing children to fight to the death without ever glorifying the violence, so many movies look down on violence whilst at the same time revelling in it, but The Hunger Games avoids this trap expertly.
It would be easy to pick fault with the love story element of the film, with Katniss’ attraction to fellow contestant Peeta never fully convincing but there is a definite sense that this hints at a more fully developed strand in further instalments. Ultimately, despite a few flaws and missteps along the way The Hunger Games is a dark, subtle and engrossing movie replete with fantastic performances, art direction and costume design. Whether young or old you are sure to be impressed with a film that speaks to audiences of all ages, and genuinely has something to say. And it’s way better than Twilight.
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