The Hunger Games (** / ****)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks
Director: Gary Ross
(Note: There will be possible spoilers near the end of this review. They are clearly marked.)
I willfully opted to sit through the two-and-a-half-hour slog that was The Hunger Games, despite the fact that I still haven’t bothered to read the books. This was because I wanted to go into this with a clear mind, having learned my lesson from already having gone gaga over the Harry Potter series before stepping into a theater. I am, though, not entirely oblivious to the story and the inspiration behind it; author Suzanne Collins (who co-wrote the screenplay and was given an executive producer credit) has cited the Iraq war and America’s obsession with reality television, but I couldn’t help but think that she additionally harbored some familiarity with the timeless myth of the Minotaur, who was regularly fed tributes of young boys and girls by the evil King Minos in order to satisfy its voracious appetite, until it was eventually slain by Theseus. Collins’ heroine, Katniss Everdeen, one of two dozen young “tributes” who will be sacrificed in this bloodthirsty annual competition, isn’t exactly Theseus’ futuristic avatar, as the Hunger Games isn’t a one-and-done deal, but there is something of a connection.
Unfortunately, there’s not much beyond that in director Gary Ross’ vision of the first of three novels. Perhaps it was stripped down enough to familiarize people like myself into the series canon, or he was well aware that fangirls (and boys) would show up in droves anyway and line THG’s coffers just to see their favorite characters show up on screen and recite the book’s dialogue, while falling for the tired schtick of “female empowerment” (of which there is little to be had here), plot depth be damned. And let’s be honest: despite its bestselling status, The Hunger Games is no Harry Potter in the storytelling department.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a future post-apocalyptic North America that is now known as Panem and is composed simply of twelve downtrodden districts (hers is District 12), which is ruled by the Capitol, a gleaming white city that wouldn’t be out of place in a Star Wars prequel. She is a skilled archer, which she puts to use by hunting her own food.
The annual gathering of the citizenry for the drafting of the 24 young tributes – one pair from each district – to take place in the 74 th annual Hunger Games is known for some reason as The Reaping, and is hosted by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who’s done up in garish makeup by Tammy Faye Bakker and equally gaudy dresses. (She goes unnamed in the film.) When Katniss’ little sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), is chosen to represent her district, Katniss nobly volunteers to take her place. She’s paired with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of a baker who’s built like a fire hydrant with the athleticism of one to match.
Unfortunately, the games don’t begin right away; first we have to get through the usual hodgepodge of obligatory training sequences, introductions to supporting characters such as drunkard mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, looking incredibly sexy), plus a garish introduction of the tributes on par with some Olympics opening ceremonies; oddly, many young contestants are seen smiling and waving to the cheering Capitol crowd, even though all but one of them will be slaughtered very soon. They’re even booked onto a talk show hosted by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), who looks as ridiculous as his name suggests. It’s all some kind of perverted publicity tour.
This all goes on for so long that by the time the Games begin, over an hour of the film has passed, painfully if you don’t have a favorite character to fawn over to keep your interest. There’s even some hullabaloo about the tributes finding “sponsors,” which will supposedly work to their advantage on the battlefield, but this subplot is soon forgotten.
When the Games finally begin, that’s when the film easily hits its peak. It takes place in a huge forested region surrounding a great grassy pitch, all of which is concealed beneath some kind of invisible dome, which I assume is always present when it’s not being used as some sort of morbid Jumbotron (it displays images of tributes killed in combat). I found this interesting, because it’s difficult to grow grass – never mind tall trees – under clear domes, not to mention the heat inside would be unbearable. This problem is conveniently solved by having a command center, under the watch of the seedy tournament coordinator, Seneca (Wes Bentley, with Spirograph beard), manipulate the weather patterns.
The juvenile violence is obscured to an extent by rapid shaky-cam work and editing, but we’re still looking at children, and not pint-sized adults, butchering their peers. Indeed, a good portion of it is genuinely terrifying; that killer-bee scene alone could induce nightmares. Never has an open field looked so dangerous. However, as far as Katniss is concerned, she’s mostly seen sitting in trees and dodging whatever outside interference the command center throws at her (i.e., an out-of-nowhere raging forest fire). But since so much time was wasted up until this point, the Games are rushed, and viewers never get anything resembling a human chess match between Katniss and any other contestants, because the ones who get any decent amount of screen time are painted as villainous hardheads in contrast to our heroic District 12ers.
The three young stars, Lawrence, Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, will become big names because of the success of the film. It certainly won’t be because of their performances. Lawrence already has an Oscar nomination under her belt for 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which I haven’t seen, so I can’t completely gauge her acting as a whole yet. Incredibly, there was even Oscar buzz prior to the release of THG, and I can say it’ll be a cold day in hell before she gets a nom for this. Lawrence has zero chemistry with either of her male counterparts, her line delivery leaves much to be desired – a conversation between Katniss and possible boyfriend Gale (Hemsworth) at the beginning is excruciating – and she wears the same stony expression whenever she’s silent, following the age-old convention that big-screen heroes must always look tough and nonplussed at strange surroundings.
Though Lawrence looks too old (and buff) for Katniss, she proves a far better physical actor; with her long auburn French braid dangling over her shoulder, and her bow and arrow cocked and ready to shoot, she could be a spitting image of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. I was reminded why I was so smitten with Orlando Bloom’s first appearance as Legolas in Lord of the Rings over a decade ago. On the other hand, Hutcherson – much more memorable among the sparkling ensemble of 2010’s The Kids Are All Right – and Hemsworth are given nothing to do other than be separate parts of the blatant hinting of a love triangle that’s given less prevalence in the novels.
My biggest issues with The Hunger Games lie within the script. The Games are a nod to Americans’ obsession with reality TV, but the most we get is one huge screen in each district’s city center and a silly pair of announcers who pop up onscreen from time to time, the latter which detracts from the seriousness of the plot; indeed, Ross does an exemplary job of making it all look so ordinary, while timidly bypassing most of the book’s political tones altogether.
(Spoilers in this paragraph; read at your own risk.) Kravitz’s Cinna is one of three characters who have nondescript ethnicities in the book but who are depicted as black in the film. This is perfectly fine, of course, if only it didn’t result in shameless racial pandering. The other two are rival tributes: diminutive preteen Rue (Shirley Temple-ish beauty Amandla Stenberg), whom Katniss befriends, and the older Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi). Face it, all the tributes from anywhere not named District 12 are in the story for one reason only: to die. After the angelic Rue is slain, her incensed father incites a riot in his hometown District 11, in which the citizens attack Capitol guards and destroy anything they can get their hands on. It’s a scene that grips you at first but its tastelessness soon sinks in. Katniss is openly moved by only Rue and Thresh’s deaths, and we never see any reaction from the friends or families of the other twenty deceased tributes (all of whom are white; not exactly a positive, either), because we’re given no reason to care about them.
The Hunger Games is a dichotomy of a picture: overhyped and boring, yet thought-provoking. I didn’t expect to leave the theater with so much ammunition for my review. I got a lot more out of this than, say, The Tree of Life. But at the same time, it’s not unreasonable to also expect something in the way of entertainment.
© 2012 Jane F. Carlson