The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Hunger Games

Reviewed by Lauren Jade Thompson.

Director Gary Ross
Length 142 min
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating *******---
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Trailer.

In the dystopian world of Panem, the failed rebellion of the 13 Districts against the all-powerful Capitol is remembered each year with The Hunger Games - a ritual in which each remaining District must offer up one girl and one boy aged between 12-18 to fight to the death on a twisted reality television show. When her 12-year-old sister (Willow Shields) is selected, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) does the unthinkable and volunteers to take her place. With the aid of a bedraggled group of helpers, including previous victor and drunkard Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and fellow Tributes Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) , Katniss seeks to win over the crowd, and pull the odds around to her favour.

Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville [1998], Seabiscuit [2003]) has created a thorough and largely faithfully adaptation of Suzanne Collins' source novel that is sure to be a hit with fans of the beloved young-adult series, and quite possibly convert some new ones. The result is a rich and engaging action-adventure narrative, offering tension and an enriching depth that gives credit to the target audience. The film has tremendous visual impact, especially in the non-too-subtle, but very effective, contrasts drawn between the grey, grubby, poverty-stricken outlying Districts and the sumptuous yet unsettling artifice of The Capitol. There is some truly stunning work here in set and costume design, complemented by contrasting filming styles: handheld, shaky, extreme close-ups for the set-up in District 12 which (mercifully!) give way to composed, static, wider shots to display the refinement and ceremony of The Capitol.

The film feels pacey and the narrative gripping despite its lengthy runtime and extended set-up. The opening attends sympathetically and enthusiastically to the complexity and structure of the world Collins created, and the rest of the film is on much firmer ground because of this. Exposition is skilfully woven into the film through the conceit of the television show and its hosts, so that newcomers to the franchise shouldn't feel too adrift. It should be said here that the film had the opportunity to do yet more with this device. One of the most powerful scenes in The Hunger Games is the reception of Katniss' "funeral" for Rue, and the movie could have taken greater advantage of being able to show what the book, with its first-person-narrative, couldn't.

This brings us to the central problem with The Hunger Games, and it's one that, I'm afraid, occurs on a pretty fundamental level. In the novel we are asked to loathe the braying elite of The Capitol who relish in the excitement of the games, detached from the individual children and ever-hungry for the next spectacular battle. Watching these events play out in a film, however, we surely become complicit in this activity. Worse still, many of the most appealing and suspenseful parts of the source text are those passages that deal with Katniss's battle just to survive: to find water, to avoid the searing heat of the day and the plummeting temperatures of night, to eat. The logics of Hollywood storytelling, however, dictate that these are the “boring bits", and that the action must be marched swiftly on to the next bloody battle. In this way, the filmmakers are aligned with the dastardly Gamemakers: both are manipulating the events in order to provide the audience with the spectacle they long to see.

In the transfer from the written word to audio-visual retelling our relationship to Katniss and the other Tributes fundamentally shifts. This may have been unavoidable - in which case, why not acknowledge the shift and write the cinema audience's complicity into the film itself? I suppose this approach was deemed too challenging and uncomfortable, especially for a family audience, but I'm not sure that it would necessarily have been a problem. Certainly the adolescent audience for Collins' novels seem to have recognised and engaged with the social satire contained within them, and there is no (artistic) reason why the film couldn't have been used to sharpen and intensify this critique.

Those criticisms of medium-specificity aside, The Hunger Games makes for an enjoyable and exciting film even - or perhaps, especially - if you haven't yet got round to reading the book. The casting is artful and exact, and all the actors do a tremendous job, even if Harrelson does steal the show as the ragged yet loveable Haymitch. Finally, Lawrence, Collins, the film's writers and director are all to be congratulated for their realisation of Katniss Everdeen, who is, for my money, one of the most exciting heroines in recent film - a claim that will be argued for in the Alternate Take of this film.

This review was published on March 27, 2012.

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