With Harry Potter over with and the Twilight saga wrapping up later this year it’s time for another wildly successful teen lit series to make its big screen bow. I went into this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ book of the same name more or less cold having never read the source material and only aware of the basic concept. Does this latest example of the 21st century phenomenon of fan bait hold up as a movie in its own right?
Short answer, yes. It’s the future and what was once North America is now Panem, a totalitarian state made up of twelve districts with the all-controlling Capitol at its centre. As punishment for a rebellious uprising some decades earlier each of the dozen districts must choose one boy and one girl aged between twelve and eighteen to compete in the annual Hunger Games, a brutal and televised fight to the death from which only one will walk away. Jennifer Lawrence plays sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a hunter from District 12 who volunteers for the lethal event when her younger sister’s name is drawn from the lottery. She travels with her district’s male ‘tribute’ Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to the Capitol to prepare.
The makers of the film have pleaded with reviewers not to compare the film to Battle Royale. You can’t fault them for optimism I suppose. The fact is that the shadow of the Japanese classic, itself adapted from a literary source, looms large over The Hunger Games since it is basically the same concept with only fairly minor variations, a televised violent free-for-all between schoolchildren from which only one can escape alive. The key difference is the target audience, that film is strictly rated 18 whilst a three-year-old can legally watch this pretender.
Not that they should. The Hunger Games takes its central violence about as far as it can go in the 12A certificate range. The more graphic images are obscured by deliberately shaky photography, quick cuts and vague camera angles but like in Psycho the power is not in what you actually see but what you know is happening. The horrific nature of the contest is not glossed over and the humanity of these children’s desperation resonates effortlessly. Moreover a couple of the kids here are way younger than anyone in Battle Royale a fact that helps to spread the core story’s most pulverising effect the widest: what if it was you?
There’s no question the Hunger Games of the title make for excellently disturbing, engrossing, potent cinema but they only make up the film’s second half. The rest of the running time is devoted to context and build-up. The residents of the Capitol are a colourfully decadent bunch, brimming with whimsical eccentricity and avaricious excess. They aren’t difficult to interpret as a clownish depiction of the one per cent wherein the story grounds its satire and while this is provocative the film fails to expand on this rather simple angle and develop its own mythology. As someone unfamiliar with the book I was left disappointed by the lack of exposition into the fictional history of Panem. The motivations of those in control are only hinted at, the culture of their world represented entirely visually. The residents of the districts are easily relatable, those of the Capitol live in a fantasy land in which they justify forced deadly combat by minors as an act of forgiveness. Perhaps the likely follow-up will find more room to develop this cyberpunk-lite psychosis.
The other missed opportunity The Hunger Games suffers from is its reluctance to focus on tension in the build-up to the main event. The first half of the film is never less than engaging as a drama but plays out a series of scenes rather than the time-bomb of films like The Two Towers which built a rhythm like a hammer striking an anvil that raised heart rates long before battle commenced. Here the fevered anticipation is reserved for the very last scene prior to hell breaking loose. Lawrence trembles convincingly and we feel it then but imagine the same scene if more time had been spent drawing out that fear and less having Josh Hutcherson and Stanley Tucci smell each other.
Hard-hitting teen stories need a strong young lead and in Jennifer Lawrence we have that. She brings all the emotional beats and humanity essential to the story with a simple sympathy and convincing physical agility. Hutcherson brings nuance to the slightly ambiguous Peeta and there’s able support from Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and the aforementioned Tucci who steals scenes predictably.
If not for a few missed opportunities The Hunger Games might have been an unqualified triumph. All the same it seems certain to be remembered as an event movie, mature and hard-hitting whilst maintaining mainstream appeal.
A half-hearted approach to world-building stunts the potential of this literary adap but once the games begin there’s no looking back. This might be remembered as the moment in cinema when a subgenre grew up. All the same it doesn’t touch Battle Royale.