There are precious few instances where a film can transcend its genre trappings, plot and narrative to emote so splendidly the faults of our times. Such is the case with The Hunger Games, a cautionary tale of sorts that confronts the audience with difficult questions and themes in an almost aggressive manner, highlighting the insecurities and low-points of our own culture through the abhorrent act of forcibly sentencing children to their deaths. With a refreshing approach to pop cinema, director Gary Ross has created a harrowing and ultimately satisfying take on Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel, with wonderful performances and challenging themes and execution that overpower any issues to deliver a fine piece of cinema.
For those unfamiliar with the now-phenomenon of a story, The Hunger Games is a sort of post-apocalyptic vision of America, where the powerful Capitol has taken control of Panem, and twelve districts of an unsuccessful uprising now live subject to its wrath. In an attempt to maintain an iron-clad grip on these districts, the Hunger Games were put into place. Every year, each district must produce a boy and girl between the ages of 12-18 to compete in a fight to the death on state-wide television. Twenty-four young men and women enter the Hunger Games, and one is crowned victor. As the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) so eloquently puts it, a winner is selected to give the districts hope, the only thing more powerful than fear.
As the “Reaping” – the drawing of participants – for the 74th annual Hunger Games approaches, our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is dealt the emotional and startling blow of having her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), picked for the games. Katniss courageously volunteers to protect her sister, and in doing so faces certain death and the realization she will never see her sister, mother, or even her best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), again.
Katniss is joined by Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as tribute for district 12, and under the guidance of past Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the eccentric chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and the kind stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss and Peeta are prepared in the Capitol for “the arena,” the site in which they must challenge the “tributes” from other outlying districts to this brutal fight. The Games are just as much about politics and pleasing the powerful as they are about survival.
Taking perhaps a tad too much time at the set-up to the brutal and heartbreaking “Hunger Games,” the ultimate pay-off is a good one. Effectively toning down the more brutal, R-rated aspects of the novel, the brutality and emotional effectiveness of the movie is never really put into question as a PG-13 film. In telling this story through Katniss’ eyes, Ross is able to ensure nothing gets watered down while still avoiding excess.
Gary Ross has ensured this is Katniss’ movie. While the film boasts a larger scope and cast of important characters and situations beyond the immediate awareness of the film’s strong heroine, much of the success of the film lies in the hands of Jennifer Lawrence. There has been much comparison between The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone – the 2010 film which earned Lawrence a Best Actress nom – and that happens to be an apt comparison, but not quite in the ways one might expect. While both characters are strong, independent woman who have to rely on their own skill and abilities for survival and both are strong performances, the comparisons go past just Lawrence.
Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern have approached The Hunger Games with a uniquely intimate style, making the film look and feel awfully like Winter’s Bone. Though telling a very grand, stylish and grotesque story, the film looks and feels very intimate and small, thanks in large part to the handheld style of shooting. Coupled with editing from Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling that feels immediate and visceral, The Hunger Games manages to imbue Katniss’ perspective and emotional reactions to occurrences that are otherwise harrowing and grand in scale.
It is an impressive achievement that Ross is able to create such an intimate, bleak and stripped-down feel, even within the decadence of the Capitol. Within the over-the-top hair, costumes, set designs, and even personalities of the Capitol’s citizens, Ross always returns the narrative to its core characters and their inner struggles. In addition to Katniss, Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta has several scenes that display such emotional honesty it pulls the film away from its more lavish moments.
Amongst uniformly outstanding performances from Capitol citizens and key players within the Hunger Games, Stanley Tucci as the commentator and interviewer Caesar Flickerman stands out. The flamboyance, personality and almost uncomfortable charm represent the faux reality the “Games” hold for the people of the Capitol. Lenny Kravitz, meanwhile, is pitch perfect as Cinna, Katniss’ stylist and quiet beacon of hope within the mayhem of the Capitol. Ross takes the liberty of adding a few scenes that do a terrific job of building up themes and future developments in the world. A terrific scene that I referenced earlier is one between President Snow and chief game-maker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), which touches on the brewing threat Katniss poses to the Capitol. Another heartbreaking added scene is one that illustrates the beginning of the rebellion in the districts. These brief sequences – directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh – not only work emotionally within the story and narrative but remind of recent turmoil in our world, which makes these scenes of anger and frustration even more impactful.
The script by Ross, Collins, and Billy Ray is admirably faithful to the events of the novel, while capturing a cinematic feel that works as strongly as cinema as it did on the page. In fact, one issue with this adaptation is how closely it follows the build-up to the “Games,” where it drags at times in the early-going. Ross has such a clear vision of how powerful and representative these themes are of our times that he has the ability to add to the source material in astounding and heartbreaking ways.
One of the ways in which this power is achieved visually is through the use of handheld camera movement, which isn’t exactly “shaky” in the sense we’ve come to know from numerous films but has a lot of movement in it. This style enables us to really delve into Katniss’ perspective. Where the shaky-cam doesn’t work is in hand-to-hand combat within the arena, which often becomes tiresome and doesn’t really hold the same impact as the technique has in quieter scenes.
There has always been a cinematic appeal to The Hunger Games, which is evident to any who have read Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel, and this appeal is fully realized by director Gary Ross. At once harrowing and grand, the film is still grounded in the personal portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, played stunningly by Jennifer Lawrence. While the visuals and effects lack in places, holding the film back slightly, the nature of Suzanne Collins’ tale translates perhaps even stronger into cinema, and the grandiose nature of the film shines through in all the right moments.
Gary Ross has such a firm grasp of how the messages of the film affect us that The Hunger Games – the best sci-fi film in years – lives up to its potential. It is a cautionary tale with deep themes and messages wrapped in the most lowly entertainment imaginable: the Hunger Games.
Rated: PG-13 (for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.)
The Hunger Games opens nationwide March 23.