Katniss Everdeen would kick Bella Swan’s bony butt.
A savvy marksman and provider for her fractured family, Katniss is a world-weary and self-possessed teen living in District 12 of Panem, a totalitarian society built from the rubble of North America. She’s also the unyielding center and moral compass of Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, a fast-paced and fearsome young adult novel that draws from the same audience as Meyers Twilight but delivers more.
It may be a dystopian sci-fi in which children are pitted against one another in televised death matches, but it’s richer and more rewarding as drama. Consider it training wheels for Orwell, Huxley and Takami. Although Collins’ ambition falls short of those aforementioned writers, she has filled her novel—followed by two sequels—with carefully planted details, and a brisk, evocative prose that propels an addictive premise and well drawn characters.
It is a relief then to learn that Gary Ross’s film is not only true to the spirit and tone of the novel, but honors its energy without leaving it defanged. As envisioned by Ross and his scriptwriting team that included Collins herself, the world of Panem is a land divided between primitive squalor and futuristic opulence, reserved for the the winners of a violent revolution. Panem ‘s moniker is derived from the Latin phrase ‘panem et circenses’ or ‘bread and circuses’ and it’s appropriate; their reign, and the games in particular, have a very Roman flair.
Katniss hails from District 12, a rural sinkhole that visually resembles our world’s version of Appalachia. Like all the other Districts, 12 is forced to participate in ‘The Reaping’, an event where two children are pulled from a lottery and taken away as ‘tributes’. These tributes become participants in the Hunger Games, a gladiator competition to the death designed as punishment for the ages ago revolt and a reminder of where the power truly lies.
Primrose Everdeen has her name pulled from the lottery (there are clear shades of Shirley Jackson in the event itself) and her sister Katniss volunteers to be tribute in her place. This is an interesting gesture in the world of Panem because it’s an example of the oppresed interfering with the planned structure of the oppresor on behalf of one of their own. Katniss knows that the meek Primrose won’t last very long in the brutal death games at the Capitol but she’s not confident that she will fare better, only that if she can spare her sister the experience, she will. This kind of thinking is dangerous to a regime because it provides too many opportunities for rebellion.
The rulers of Panem, led by the sanctimonious and leonine President Snow (Donald Sutherland), cover moments of independence like this by staging the Hunger Games as a reality television event. Everybody is forced to watch and everybody eventually cheers for someone, which by default, is hastening someone else’s demise. As Connor McCloud would say, ‘there can be only one’. The event comes with plenty of pageantry; there are mentors, hairdressers, and costume designers who are on hand to obfuscate government-sanctioned murder as big-ticket entertainment. Think of it as Dicing with the Stars or Big Brother Wants To Kill You, and it’s the new opiate for the masses.
When Katniss is whisked off to the capitol, with baker’s son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the male tribute of District 12, the film moves from the rustic backwater struggles of the districts to the effette glamour of the decadent ruling class, who make-up their sacrificial lambs and outfit them with appropriate weaponry before sending them into the arena, which resembles primitive wilderness combat. At home Primrose and Katniss’ hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth) watch the hunger games and anxiously hope for her survival. There’s the makings of a blossoming love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, which no doubt fuels some of the aggressive fanbase.
As director, Ross does a good job coordinating the events of the novel to craft a sleek and satisfying adventure; he’s far more concentrated on Katniss as a character than the Hunger Games as an event and this is exactly the right choice considering the trajectory of the future books. The production itself is impressive, and there’s been craft and care expended to make the districts appropriately fuedal and futile, while the indulgence of the Capitol reminds of the satirical pomp and circumstance of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
When transferring book to film, one can often stumble across ideas so literal that they clash with the author’s intent, and Ross mostly overcomes that by streamlining detail instead of event; we see almost everything the book shows us, sometimes in less texture than on the page. This is almost essential for some of Collins’ more far-fetched concepts like the trackerjacks—genetically alterred bees—and the mutts—I’ll leave that for you to discover—because they need to exist within the reality of Panem.
Realism is where The Hunger Games excels, and why it comes off as a drama of substance instead of empty action calories. Ross opts for a close-quarters kind of cinematography that reminds of intimate indie character dramas instead of a glossy science fiction epic. He stages the conflict within the Hunger Games as a hit-the-ground-running spray of mud, blood and whirling scenery. Sometimes it’s aggressively spastic, but it conveys the danger and impact of the kills without the gore and viscera. Intimacy is earned through close-ups that often focus on the faces of Katniss, Peeta and Rue, a younger tribute they meet in the games. The score is exhilirating and poignant, never overplaying it’s hand and always complimenting the action on screen.
What truly makes The Hunger Games worthy is the acting. Lawrence giving the best female performance of the year thus far. exudes a down-to-earth pluck and sensible grace that make us believe her as Kat, and she comes alive as a warrior and competitor during the games. The book was narrated by Kat, so we heard her interior thoughts and understood her conflict, fear and moral struggle; Lawrence must outwardly convey all of this as well as Kat’s infectious solidary that spreads to some of the other tributes. Hutcherson is fine as Peeta, although he’s mostly relegated to playing off Lawrence, who is the lead in this dance. Hutcherson’s earnestness complimentsLawrence’s drive in ways that will pay off down the road. The large supporting cast are all good, but some shine brighter than others. Woody Harrelson is right on the money as drunken mentor and former games champion Haymitch Abernathy. It is Harrelson’s Abernathy and Lenny Kravitz’s sagacious stylist, Cinna, who bolster the film as colorful secondary players. Visually extravagant but less interesting are Stanley Tucci as announcer Caesar and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, who suggests what Lady Gaga might become if she were forced to live in Panem.
This is a colorful and entertaining film, and I was constantly wrapped up in it as a drama. It isn’t the kind of bombastic event we usually get as a franchise blockbuster and for that I’m thankful. Ross can’t quite make Collins cliffhanger stick as an actual ending, but he does retain that sense of a rebellion boiling under Katniss’ blood. Here is, finally, a young adult film that doesn’t exploit teenage restlessness, but instead calls it to responsibility and thoughtfulness. Many tales pay lip service to courage and self sacrifice, few cause us to confront our own feelings on such matters. When faced with your own hunger games, what would you do?