2.5 Stars out of 4
The Hunger Games features another post-apocalyptic world meant to be as thrilling to watch as it is tragic. It is situated in the nation of Panem, which is run by the tyrannical Capitol and divided by gated-in districts built from the ashes of North America. District 12, the lower-class community, hosts heroine Katniss Everdeen (the mighty Jennifer Lawrence) who replaces her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) as the female tribute in the gladiatorial Hunger Games.
Since The Hunger Games is based on the 2008 best-selling novel by Suzanne Collins, which I’ve read, plot description shouldn’t be a top priority here. I’ll be brief. In case you are unaware, the Hunger Games is Panem’s yearly competition when a young girl and boy from all 12 districts are sent to a remote location to bump each other off for the entertainment of the upper class. It’s a mix of The Running Man and The Truman Show submerged in a tween-sized bloodsport.
The film’s director is Gary Ross who also did the aptly pleasant Pleasantville and wrote the small-potatoes Big, two films that share a similar theme with The Hunger Games: displacement. The Hunger Games is, or at least strives to be, about the youth’s loss of innocence in an already damagingly culpable society, where the Capitol take children from their homes and plunge them into a world of murder and survival.
Beyond this Social Darwinism, there is the obligatory irony of this genre: although The Hunger Games depicts a dog-eat-dog futuristic society, this critique really says something more about today. My, did I just say “critique”? Oh boy. Well, I won’t give The Hunger Games that much credit.
Collins’s novel, a work that screamed “Hey, turn me into a movie!”, is all for the entertainment. While her socio-political allegories were about as fleshed out as a wrinkled suit, the urgency was there – frenetic and perpetually alive.
Ross’s adaptation deserves credit for starting on a high note. He sets up reasonable stakes: Katniss’s dreams of escaping Panem challenged by the Games, the questionably Platonic relationship with hunter buddy Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’s latent bonds with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Bridge to Terabithia’s Josh Hutcherson), former tribute Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and District 12 escort daffodil Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). Plus, of course, you have the suspenseful, dread-ridden march towards the Games itself.
This very build works, because Ross captures it all with a broodingly deliberate pace. There’s lots of anticipation as the Games’s tributes are interviewed by the Jerry Lewis-like TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), and we realize how accustomed Panem citizens are to such a medieval form of entertainment. Caesar paints the veneer of sensationalism over the Games, with his high charisma and devil-may-care attitude towards the morose tributes and the, to the contrary, ecstatic audience.
This might be The Hunger Games’s most effective message: us citizens, within our so-called “civil” society, are at the mercy of an uncivil popular culture. It controls us and, worst yet, it can deliver some pretty entertaining stuff. The problem is this type of entertainment lacks any morsel of sympathy, giving us a few moments of joy in exchange for our humanity. The Hunger Games builds up this theme, but once the carnage begins it never follows through – as if it was seduced by the very demon it previously condemned.
It’s too bad. We had a solid mainstream movie on our hands… maybe even a thoughtful one. The problem is, I think, Ross expected the action of the Games to unfold automatically. No, it needed a director. Suddenly, this second half of the movie becomes increasingly toothless. The character development is cut off, the fellow tributes vapid knickknacks, and the themes evaporated. The effectively measured pace starts to skip beats, causing everything to feel so rushed.
If only that was to benefit the urgency. Strangely, the Games are the weakest part of the movie. Blame must be put on Ross, who thinks handheld closeups are super immersive. In this case, he creates a maddening disorientation, causing the audience to feel as displaced as the characters. If you think that’s the point, then Ross succeeds at turning this bloodsport into something far too bloodless.
One could argue that the Games isn’t as enjoyable is part of the bigger thematic picture: that Games aren’t a source of entertainment, but a cynical pop culture ploy. Perhaps, but that can’t answer why all the other themes are dropped. What The Hunger Games amounts to is a love story between Katniss and Peeta, which in the book was a compromise by the characters to appeal to the Panem audience. But Ross omits this complexity. Alas, he compromises to the Twilight audience, a far more devastating hive than Panem.
Will readers like this film adaptation of The Hunger Games? Probably. I think they have already decided they will. For me, The Hunger Games is a film without a thematic, or even dramatic payoff. After generating thoughtful questions in the first half, the movie never dares to explore any solutions in the second half. Instead of encouraging us to ponder the deceptive nature of entertainment, we are, in the end, asked the slightest of all questions: are you Team Peeta or Team Gale?