Review | The Hunger Games

By the end of the first act of The Hunger Games, the three 13-year-old girls sitting next to me had curled into the fetal position. They shed tears at some moments, and broke into giggles and applause at others. Two of them pried themselves away only long enough to go to the restroom — the running time, much like the film’s subject matter, is a gauntlet, clocking in at almost two and a half hours – and, as the credits rolled, I asked what they thought. In unpracticed unanimity, they sighed, “It’s a masterpiece.”

This movie is going to make all the money.

I’ve read the Suzanne Collins novel on which the film is based, along with the two follow-up books, and as a fan of the young adult-franchise, I can say with certainty that The Hunger Games will please more devotees than it will alienate. Blessedly for those new to the subject matter, it also stands alone as a unique, engaging and, at times, surprisingly pared-down dystopian sci-fi drama.

The story, set in the future North America of Panem, sectioned into 12 districts and controlled by totalitarian Capitol, centers upon Katniss Everdeen of District 12 (played by Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence). The Capitol’s annual Hunger Games, held to keep the previously rebellious districts in their subservient places, involves a lottery in which a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 is selected from each district to fight in a televised death match. Bets are placed on who will be the last kid standing, sponsorships are granted to the most promising contestants, or “Tributes,” and the participants are all too aware that a good show is what matters most.

After her meek young sister Prim (Willow Shields) is selected, Katniss volunteers to take her place, alongside male contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). The first half of the film (arguably the better half; what it lacks in the latter’s action, it more than exceeds in thoughtful character development and an incredible slow build of tension) centers upon Katniss’ roots, her introduction to the lavish world of the Capitol, her training for the 74th Games and her arc from strong, stubborn participant to unlikely frontrunner.

Director Gary Ross shows sound judgment in putting the bulk of the film’s emotional resonance in Lawrence’s capable hands. Much like the book, this film is Katniss’ story, and Lawrence knocks it out of the park. She exudes strength and immediately endears the audience to her plight; she’s capable of conveying myriad emotions in a single look, and her physicality hits that perfect balance of toughness and vulnerability. If her breakout performance in 2010′s Winter’s Bone hadn’t already sealed it, she is the perfect casting choice — and she deserves another Oscar nomination for this role. The best parts of the movie are those that follow our heroine in solitary survival-style scenarios, first while demonstrating her archery skills in the forests surrounding her district, then while training in front of sponsors, and, inevitably, while navigating the terrain of the Games.

Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth

The novel’s purists will notice tweaks almost immediately — notably, the origin of Katniss’ mockingjay pin and infamous three-finger camera salute, a lack of any details about the other 11 districts, the backstory of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and, most problematic, Katniss’ history with fellow District 12 resident Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). Much of this is done for the sake of brevity — the film, even at its epic length, is the best possible “greatest hits” adaptation of the book’s plot points — but the lack of emphasis on Gale and Katniss’ relationship will undoubtedly hurt later installments of the franchise. I hate to disappoint those on Team Gale, but he’s hardly in the movie.

Peeta’s tale, on the other hand, is completely fleshed out: Hutcherson deftly captures the arc of baker’s son to audience charmer, managing to harness the elusive balance between the character’s perceived true feelings and those wielded solely as part of the game. Other standouts among the epic cast come from Amandla Stenberg as District 11′s Rue (she is every bit as petite, sweet and savvy as fans of the book could hope), Alexander Ludwig as District 2′s bloodthirsty Cato (he’s downright menacing) and Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta’s adviser Haymitch (Harrelson not only possesses impeccable comedic timing but manages to lend a level of humanity to the alcoholic winner of the 50th Hunger Games that the book never quite achieved). Alhough Effie isn’t fully developed, Banks graciously allows herself to be grotesquely transformed, and spews her dialogue in sing-song tones with appropriately inadvertent comedic timing.

Issues with the lack of emphasis on Gale, and Peeta’s considerable screen time, aside, Lawrence is so magnetic that the love-story angle seems unnecessary and — dare I say? — even laughable. Those in the audience who whoop and applaud are the ones who don’t quite see what the narrative is attempting to uncover: the undertones of calculated, rebellious, staged emotions. Nothing is as it seems, for the contestants or those playing them like pawns.

That is perhaps the greatest achievement of The Hunger Games: the dichotomy between the outer and inner worlds of Panem — the idea that corporate greed breeds inhumanity and capitalizes on the weak and poor, and, above all else, that those at the bottom of the food chain don’t have to stand for it. This movie could’ve been adapted any which way — far more sensationalized and Twilight-esque — but instead we’re given a sobering, oftentimes incredibly intimate personification of that very lesson in Katniss. The agenda of the film is surprisingly intelligent and brazenly against type for a big-budget PG-13 movie marketed to a massive teen following.

One recommendation I’d make, based on the incredibly shaky handheld camerawork throughout, is to skip this film in IMAX. The technique is used to brilliant effect when it comes to focusing close up on Katniss and her surroundings, as well as cloaking some of the more violent moments in the arena, but it can get a little dizzying for those more prone to motion sickness. Regardless, the technical aspects of this movie are so on point that, even with such a long run time, the pacing is relentless, the tension consistently built. The sound design pairs perfectly with the desaturated look of the outer districts, the naturalistic surroundings of the arena and the hyper-colorful, streamlined modernity of the Capitol, melding muted noises with natural effects and a pulse-pounding score.

The Hunger Games is a truly pleasant surprise, unyieldingly owning its status as 2012′s first guaranteed blockbuster while also managing to be a thought-provoking sci-fi action film. It’s the rare movie that impresses regardless of age, gender or familiarity with the material. I’d implore you to purchase a ticket, but based on some of the initial box office reports, odds are you’ve already bought one.

The Hunger Games opens Friday nationwide.

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Comments

  • Drunken Fist

    Great review! You addressed some of the things about which I’d been wondering. I enjoyed the books as well, but felt the writing was rather clunky in spots; this is one where I think the film may well surpass the book. My girlfriend doesn’t want to see it at all, unfortunately, so I’ll probably wind up having to wait for the DVD/Bluray release. Glad to hear so much positive buzz about it, all the same.

  • Beowulf579

    But is the movie something a non-teen or even non-early 20 something enjoy?
    I’ve been wanting to see a good film for a while and I am 32. With all the buzz on this one, I was curious to see it and have very limited knowledge of the books. Should I go see it?

  • http://twitter.com/Mr_ComicBook Mr. Comic Book

    I saw a press screening of the film, and while it was good, I thought it could have been better.  Lawrence owns Katniss, and the rest of the cast are good as well.  I was hoping for some more character development in the beginning though.  It seemed that the movie gives us minimal character development so that we can get by later in the film, but not enough to truly understand these characters.  My girlfriend (a hardcore Hunger Games fan) liked it, but didn’t love it. I enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to the sequel next year. And I’ll probably get it on Blu-Ray

  • http://twitter.com/Mr_ComicBook Mr. Comic Book

    It’s work checking out.  It’s not great, but non fans and non teens (I’m 24) will like it

  • http://profiles.google.com/200328sept David Fullam

    Shot in my neck of the woods with two friends as extras.

  • JD

    In your review, you said you think Jennifer Lawrence deserves another
    Oscar nomination for the Hunger Games.

    It seems like the Academy has something
    against blockbusters. That’s why they expanded the best picture race to
    10 films. They avoid criticism for nominating Inception, then they let
    the Iron Lady beat Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 for Best
    Makeup.

    It’s been a while since an actor got an Oscar nomination for lead actor or actress in a blockbuster franchise of this scale. Heath Ledger not only got an Oscar nomination, but a win for the Dark Knight in 2008. That film grossed over a billion dollars and was the highest grossing film of 2008 and one of the highest grossing films of all time. But his performance was a supporting one.

    I don’t think that a lead in a film like this can nab an Oscar nomination these days. It’s only March, by January the media will have shoved the same 5 names in are face during the hundreds of awards show then the academy will be pressured to pick them.

     

  • Lord Prong

    I’m 39 yrs old.  After reading a lot of positive reviews the wife and I decided to check out this film.  It was OK.  Not overly spectacular, but fairly good.  But I’ve seen a lot of “Running Man” genre films better, and more gripping than this.  Teens will probably eat it up as “so original” and “gripping” but that speaks more to their inexperience with earlier, similar films to this genre.

    I thought Jennifer Lawrence was pretty good, but Oscar talk is absolutely ridiculous.  While above par than most teen’s acting, the role didn’t require her to stretch her acting skills much more than the usual “powerful teen female heroine” characterisations we’ve seen all over the place.  She has presence though.  As does Josh Hutcherson who does a lot with little.

    Plot motivations are pretty ridiculous – the concept of the Hunger Games is barely explained, and certainly not convincing as to why they even bother with the games let alone why any of the populace would support, tolerate, or even watch such a show.  The population is broken into two shallow characterisations – the filthy rich who just don’t understand/ empathise with the plight of the poor (they border on the utter ridiculous), and the “we just wandered in from The Grapes of Wrath we’re so poor” downtrodden poor people.  Man, they’re so poor and downtrodden they get excited about breadrolls!!!  Last time I was so unsubtly emotionally manipulated in a film was Happy Feet!!

    There’s a touch of romance in the film, but absolutely no justification for it even existing.  Maybe, as the reviewer’s suggesting it’s played to the unempathetic viewing audience in the film, but it doesn’t explain why Jennifer Lawrence’s character seems to “instantly fall in love” with a guy that, apart from a minor flashback, is given little explanation for being an object of attraction.

    The action is good, when it eventually begins – there’s a lot of downtimme beforehand that made my backside itch on the cinema seat.  Peeta’s particular skill, not the throwing one, is pretty ridiculous especially regarding a scene near the river.  I won’t get into it, but when you see it, you’ll agree it’s bordering on the ridiculous.  The ending is also incredibly abrupt and I think needed a little more to suggest that the story is not over, or that the main characters have changed and may be motivated to change the world. 

    So, for all it’s faults it’s still an enjoyable film and I’m glad I saw it.  Just take any review of the film from anyone under 21 with a pinch of salt as the hype surrounding this film seems to be colouring their perception of the film.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure I’ve ever read a better movie review.

  • SnoopySick

    Of course it’s good. It’s based on an even better story by Koushun Takami, entitled Battle Royale. I am not interested in bashing Hunger Games for taking it’s story from someone else’s work, but it would be nice to see Takami get the credit he deserves. If you like Hunger Games, you should check out the original source material. It’s pretty incredible.

  • Mike

    I’m having a hard time getting over the ridiculous name “Katniss”.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QKN5MHOI6VUFOYCTV5REK7M7A4 Jacob