With the Harry Potter film franchise ending in 2011, it was only natural that Hollywood would start looking for the next young-adult sci-fi/fantasy franchise to exploit. Fortunately for them, there was already an heir apparent, with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy already catching fire (if you’ll forgive the pun) with juvenile readers. Production started shortly before Harry Potter ended, and the first film debuted a little more than a year ago, in March 2012, under the directorship of Gary Ross.
Set in the future dystopia Panem, The Hunger Games starts with a brief explanation of what the world and the games are like. A civil war had erupted in Panem in the past, as different districts revolted against the capital. The rebels lost. Hard. As punishment, the Hunger Games were established. Once a year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each of the 12 districts. These 24 youths are then made to compete against each other in the Games, a brutal battle royale in an environment that the capital gamesmen can manipulate. There can be only one survivor. By the time of the film, the televised games are now in their 74th year, and the capital presents them as if they’re a big show of unity and fun for all the districts. The children of the districts have a differing opinion, as might be expected. When her twelve-year-old sister’s name is drawn in her first year of eligibility, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to be the female tribute for district 12 in her place.
We who are about to die would prefer to show you a different arrangement of fingers.
As the main character, Katniss falls into a lot of the standard heroic archetypes. She’s dependable, loyal, and stands up for what she believes to be right. She resents being in the Hunger Games, but doesn’t regret volunteering to save her sister. She’s stand-offish and has trouble making friends by her own admission, a factor that she is told will cause her difficulties in the Games, as sponsors can have help packages delivered to her which may be critical to her survival. She’s entertaining and likeable enough for the audience to root for her, but there isn’t a lot of depth to the character — at least not initially. There’s a sense of foundation-building, in that there’s plenty of room for development in the sequels and enough of a base for that development to take root.
Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the male tribute from Katniss’s district, is a bit harder to figure out. He’s more skilled at playing the public than Katniss, and also at playing the other players. For much of the film, especially once the Games start in earnest, it’s hard to figure out his motivations, which adds a modicum of intrigue to the film. The other tributes are generally not fleshed out, being there to act as opponents, save for the character of Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg. Rue is the youngest of the tributes, and makes it difficult for the audience to forget that these aren’t “young adults” participating in the organized murdersport, they’re kids. This is an intentional bit of manipulation to drive home the horror of the situation as we see Rue, just like Katniss and Peeta, forced into kill-or-be-killed situations.
Several of the other kids seem to revel in it, though. Presumably they come from the prison district.
Of course, if the Games began shortly into the film, it would be a brief and somewhat shallow film. In fact, the Games themselves happen rather late into the film’s extended run time. Most of the film is leading up to it, with training and public exhibitions of the tributes. While this does encourage the audience to say “get on with it” during the slower moments, it’s actually a fairly intelligent way to structure the story. It allows the audience to see a bit more into the minds of Katniss and Peeta, and to see more of the world which has created the Games. It heightens the sense of spectacle of the Games themselves, so it isn’t merely an empty, if visceral, free-for-all.
It also provides some of the most colorful characters in the film. Elizabeth Banks, as the recruiter for the Games, is the very picture of decadence. Her powdered wig and makeup ensemble isn’t harmed by its apparent anachronism, but rather helped by it; she seems so out of place compared to the impoverished people she’s visiting that it immediately drives home how out of touch she is in thinking that the Hunger Games are something that everybody thinks is wonderful. The District 12 mentor, Haymitch, is a former victor himself, and has no such illusions. Played by Woody Harrelson, he’s one of the highlights of the film, simultaneously playing a drunken lout and a benevolent advisor. Donald Sutherland is only on screen for a few minutes as President Snow, but carries the role with such a quiet sinister gravity that one hopes to see more of him in future installments. Even Lenny Kravitz turns in a surprisingly solid performance as Cinna, the stylist who is responsible for Katniss’s public image and who is one of her strongest supporters.
The one question that could make or break the film, though, is whether the action is exciting once it finally arrives. And the answer to that question is that yes, it is. While it has some quiet moments to let the audience breathe, the fights are quickly paced and inventive and make good use of the surrounding scenery. Instead of a wild, meaningless melee, it takes the form of a massive multiplayer game of cat and mouse with traps and tricks and alliances — though the question of how one allies with people out to kill you isn’t addressed. Although it takes a while for the film to deliver on the action, once it arrives, it proves itself worth the wait.
I haven’t been reading the novels. I don’t know where the next part, Catching Fire, takes the characters — presumably they don’t have to re-enroll in the Games themselves. But I do know I look forward to seeing these characters again, and hope the action stays at the same level of quality and the non-action scenes raise the level of intrigue.