Since the Twilight franchise is coming to an end later this year (presumably, anyway) with the release of Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Hollywood could really use another box office juggernaut franchise. Step in The Hunger Games, an adaptation of the popular series of books by Suzanne Collins, which has all the ingredients to be just that and more than that it deserves it.
The film is set in the future where the “Capitol” chooses one teenage boy and girl from each of the 12 “districts” to fight in “The Hunger Games,” a live televised fight to the death. When her sister gets randomly chosen to take part, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to fight in her place.
What is perhaps The Hunger Games’ greatest asset is the world created. The dystopian future thing has been done a ton in film over the years but from the source material (which I admit I haven’t read) director Gary Ross has delivered a fully realized world that’s interesting, odd, uncanny (in a good way) and above all else believable. Sure, it’s a fantastical world but it takes itself seriously and that allows us as the audience to do the same.
Almost everything leading up to the actual big event itself had me gripped, from Katniss’ brave act of taking her sister’s place to the training sequences and her trying to make an impression on the Capitol – a fictional portrayal of a totalitarian government to rival V For Vendetta – and potential sponsors (people who could end up saving her life during the game by providing food and medicine etc.).
Key to this is the performance of Lawrence as Katniss, conveying a perfect mix of strength and vulnerability essential in making us care for and root for her. She is surrounded by a great supporting cast who all leave their mark including Woody Harrelson as Katniss’ alcoholic mentor, Elizabeth Banks as the flamboyant escort of “Tributes” from District 12 and especially Stanley Tucci, that ever-excellent character actor, as the eccentric host of a television show who interviews the Tributes. Although most of those around Lawrence are more outlandish in nature, the actors completely commit to the roles and, again, make it all believable.
So having said all that what’s the issue with the film? Funnily enough it’s the actual event itself. I’m not going to harp on about it being like a Diet Battle Royale, as that may be a bit unfair, but the issues go beyond that. The actual event itself feels underwhelming particularly in its survival aspect which is supposed to bring with it the possibility of death around every corner. When there is action, which is less often than you might expect, it’s undoubtedly fun but for me it doesn’t portray the necessary peril to deliver on this dangerous event that’s been built up like crazy for more than half the movie.
Also while it’s obviously essential to the overall narrative, the love story between Katniss and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) felt rather forced and contrived. The hope is probably to make them the new big-screen lovers (mainly teen) audiences can get invested in ala Twilight. Only time will tell whether that aspect is successful but personally it didn’t completely work.
My last issue with the film is the ending. Once it has built towards the event and then settled into a slower pace with the occasional dose of action – which is not that well shot by director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) who seems to have contracted a bit of “shaky-cam-itis” – the ending sort of just floats along out of nowhere and fizzles out, ending with a whimper not a bang. There’s a definite sense that this is made for more films to come (there are two more books in the series, after all) instead of being a self-contained story in its own right.
All that may sound a bit harsh. Despite of the issues in the latter half, The Hunger Games is still a rare start to a Hollywood franchise in that it’s both engaging and entertaining without sacrificing its smarts. Never insulting the audience’s intelligence, the film sets up a fascinating world that’s full of potential.
Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favour.
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