Reviewed by: Alasdair Morton
Based on the bestselling young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, there’s enormous pressure on The Hunger Games to be the next genre milestone in popular culture. Potter might have conjured his last spell, Edward and Bella’s meandering relationship is nearing its final moments, so there couldn’t be a better time for a new kid on the block. Gary Ross’s (Pleasantville) movie is up to the task – a refreshingly gritty and adventurous affair that packs plenty of thematic depth, it doesn’t let the ambitious source material down.
Things kick off in a near future where things have gone decidedly Running Man-shaped. There are the well-off who live in privileged civilization, and then there are others who live in medieval-esque poverty, miners and farming communities forced to hunt for food. Then there is the titular games, a reality-TV competition which plucks young girl and boys between the ages of 12 and 18 to duel to the death for the entertainment of the watching- hordes. One of these such ‘tributes’ is Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) who enters in to the ring to do battle, giving hope to millions as she fights with bravery, skill and, above all, honour.
As a satire of reality TV The Hunger Games is spot on – “if no one watched then they wouldn’t have a show,” one possible tribute says astutely. Finely negotiating the passages of keeping the masses under control is games-master President Snow (a wizened Donald Sutherland, who brings gravitas to the teen-time histrionics), who understands the importance of offering hope but within finely maintained parameters only. Harrelson is good value as a one-time games victor turned mentor, the former outsider now a part of the system who’s now enjoying the privilege his triumph brought but without ever losing the anti-establishment sentiment that fuelled him to get there in the first place. Stanley Tucci is gleefully camp as the show’s blur-haired host. Lawrence though is the cog on which it all hinges: warrior woman one moment, maternal and caring another, Katniss’s a tough to act to get right but the Winter’s Bone star pulls it off with aplomb, layering her plucky combatant with a toughness that hints at, and momentarily reveals, an inner fragility too.
There are glitches in the nascent franchise’s armour though. While a shaky-cam approach instils an urgency and sense of tempo, the action is often left a little lacking. Budgetary restraints limit any grandstanding, and in order to find that target market, the fights are notieceably bloodless, a problem when the film’s very premise calls for the brutal murder of twenty odd young teens. With so many characters involved in the games too, it is tough to find time to introduce them all, leaving many as cannon-fodder, and others have glimpsed but too slight to trouble our emotions when they perish.
With one eye clearly on setting things up for the series to come (there are two further books in the series), there is the sense that a lot is being held back. Whether this be backstory to characters, a barely glimpsed outside world (too little is seen of the world at large particularly the mega-city Capitol, and both its prosperous glam-goth-punk styled population enjoying the games and the communities cowed in fear that chance will see their children picked out of the bowl for competition), or a conclusion that sits just the right side of cop out but doesn’t satisfy in the way that such a blood-thirsty premise calls for.
That said though, it is refreshingly engaging and in Lawrence boasts a far superior protagonist more suited to our times than Bella’s vamp-loving self-destruction. It has thematic content to stimulate too, the travails of keeping a family together under difficult circumstances, the pressures brought by economic woes, a society fractured along socio-economic lines – these are issues that weigh in far more than mere hormonal, lustful longings.