There has been a substantial amount of buzz about The Hunger Games (2012), directed by Gary Ross. I was worried that the pre-release hype was going to be better than the movie itself. I think the marketing hype set us up to expect this generation’s Blade Runner (1982), but gave us something a little less than the hype prophesied.
Set in a dystopian future, North America was ruined by drought, fire, famine, and war to be replaced by Panem. This country is divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Each year two representatives (one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12-18) are selected at random to participate in The Hunger Games; part sports entertainment, part brutal intimidation tactic of the subjugated districts, and part reality television broadcast throughout Panem. The 24 participants are forced to eliminate each other in a fight-to-the-death while all the citizens watch. When 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) younger sister is selected as the mining district’s female “tribute,” Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), involuntarily attain a celebrity status but will not likely live through The Hunger Games as they are pitted against other participants who are bigger, stronger, and have trained their whole lives.
One would suppose that a movie with the word “games” in the title would have at least some level of joyous frivolity. The tone of this movie is actually quite somber. There are children bent on killing each other in any way possible. Children! That alone is a disquieting concept. There are also subjects of oppressive dictators, starvation, and inequality. With all of Panem glued to their televisions watching The Hunger Games, this dystopian future brings to mind visions of present day reality television; no one in The Capitol seems to think anything of youngsters killing one another, they are simply caught up in the entertainment value with no consideration of ethics or subject matter.
Jennifer Lawrence did quite well for her first appearance. Katniss is a quiet introvert, but still a strong, independent young woman. Her character is well developed early on, and we can believe why she is so skilled with a bow and arrows; she doesn’t simply pick it up and discover a predisposition towards it. Katniss doesn’t speak very much, fortunately we have The Hunger Games commentator Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) explaining some complex concepts that Katniss isn’t verbalizing. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy is a depressed alcoholic from District 12 who previously won The Hunger Games. He is meant to mentor Katniss and Peeta before they compete. His cynicism doesn’t seem to help either one.
Peeta has a romantic interest in Katniss, but it is not reciprocated. Peeta confesses this interest in a pre-game interview and then there is pressure for this love interest to grow, not only to please the viewers but to attract attention from sponsors who will send survival gear. Nothing brings a couple closer together than trying to survive a barbaric blood sport. Yet, I didn’t buy their romance. The actors just didn’t seem to have the right chemistry. And even though they are in the middle of a violent life or death situation, Katniss and Peeta still find time to smooch. I don’t mind smooching, but movie characters always seem to find the most inopportune moments to do so.
The art design and subject matter was interesting enough to watch, but the way the cinematographer captured it made me physically nauseated. There were a lot of shaky camera shots; as if there were cameramen running around trying to capture the action. That’s applicable, given the reality television theme of The Hunger Games, but on the other hand it made me feel pretty queasy watching it on the big screen. There were also close combat scenes where the camera was much too close to the actors to tell what was happening. There’s a struggle, obviously, but I couldn’t tell who was doing what to whom or even who was winning until the fight was over. Parts of this movie were pretty sloppy in terms of cinematography, but I don’t think it detracted too much from the movie overall.
I am constantly told by the fans of The Hunger Games that I need to read the books in order to appreciate the movie. I think that is a horrible thing to say about a movie! If the success and credibility of a film requires it’s viewer to read a book to make the movie palatable and understandable, then the movie itself can’t be solid or good enough to support itself as a good movie. Certainly I encouraged people who enjoyed the Harry Potter films to read the books, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) did not require the book to be read beforehand for the movie to be good. I have not read The Hunger Games (yet), and I think the movie is good enough to stand on its own.
The Hunger Games wasn’t too bad. While it was lengthy, it still seemed rushed and didn’t give enough time to develop some characters enough for the viewers to feel sorry for their losses. The child-on-child butchery is watered down with shaky camera work and careful edits, which ultimately weakened the adrenaline and cheapened the prolonged killing. Most of deaths just didn’t have much significance. I think Gary Ross simply assumed viewers wanted to see man-hunts and survival scenes more than they wanted to see commentary about how a cruel political system uses its subjects in a sick and twisted way. The Hunger Games was entertaining enough, and I recommend seeing it. I think it’s an above average renter, and possibly worth a matinee theater ticket; it’s not quite what they hype promised us.