I’ll share with you a little secret: I hate hype. I severely detest it and I almost always root for the underdog. Right on the heels of Harry Potter and Twilight, The Hunger Games is a ready-made hit. It was the first literary phenomenon to grab readers since the two aforementioned, and as the two developed massive film followings, why shouldn’t this? With the progression of the media, hype is now triple the expectations made for the original Harry Potter and Twilight installments, pundits already predicting a $130 million- plus haul over the March opening weekend. Anticipation seems to have reached its peak on the web, people already clamoring for Oscar discussion (seriously? When no one’s seen it yet?). It’s on track to become one of the biggest franchises of all time, and that poses the question—is the hype the media predicting turning into reality because of it? Having loved all of the books (all holders of high critical acclaim), I of course had it on my list of most anticipated. But then again, there were a lot of things set up to go wrong. Would a desire for a PG-13 rating reduce the book’s violence and gore to the point of bloodlessness? Would cheesy CGI effects dominate the book’s blend of fantasy fashion and mutated dogs? For the most part, The Hunger Games successfully dodges these hurdles.
The Hunger Games takes place in a post-war nation in the ruins of North America known as Panem (from the Latin “panem et circenses,” for bread and circuses). While those who live in the Capitol bask in luxuries and rich food, the outer-lying twelve districts are laborers, most starving and poor. There were originally thirteen districts, but after they rebelled against the Capitol’s tyranny and lost, the Capitol decided they needed to be punished. They decided to create The Hunger Games- a yearly event where a young male and female victor is chosen through a lottery in each of the twelve districts, the children forced to fight to the death with only one victor. They are fed well in their short stay at the Capitol and trained, dressed like Capitol citizens being the closest Panem gets to celebrities.
In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hunts illegally on the outskirts of her town to feed her family with her best friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). They voice rebellion but never act upon it. On the day of the drawing for the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss’ younger sister, Prim, is chosen as the female tribute for District 12, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son who gave Katniss burned bread when her family was starving, is the male tribute. They travel from the slum-like District 12 to the extravagant capitol, where the fashion choices are exotic and the citizens frivolous. They are introduced to their rarely sober mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who tells them of sponsors (who sends life-saving gifts during the games) and ways to win them over. They also meet Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a pitch-perfect product of the capitol between her pink hair and frolicsome concerns.
Katniss and Peeta vary between training and interviews. Training to impress the Gamemakers, and interviews to win over the Capitol audience and potential sponsors. They find ways to quickly become the favorites that include costumes made by designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and announcing unrequited love (courtesy of Peeta), in effect making Katniss desirable and playing a part later in the story. Brief foreshadowing to the rebellion that takes center stage in the next two installments, Peeta and Katniss discuss their desire to not just be a part of the Capitol’s game. This long prelude feels surprisingly swift for something that takes up half of the movie, but soon enough we finally enter The Hunger Games. Katniss tries to stay alive while Peeta joins the Careers (alliance formed by the strongest districts). The Gamemakers try to throw them together in a bloodbath, throwing fireballs at Katniss to move her closer. Plots arise between blowing up a load of cargo and throwing a hive of lethal hacker-jackers at the other tributes. Katniss briefly forms her own alliance with Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl from District 11 who saves Katniss’ life multiple times and reminds her terribly of her own little sister. The Capitol, playing off of Peeta and Katniss’ supposed romance, changes the rules so that there can be two victors if they are from the same district- this changes the stakes entirely, and if Katniss can play it just right, she might just be able to get her and Peeta out of the arena alive.
The Hunger Games not only dodges its obstacles but skirts pasts them with finesse. Director Gary Ross skillfully orchestrates the film, his take on the source material extremely faithful but with his own distinction. His camerawork is deliberately shaky to maximize the realism of the subject. It must have been tempting to paint everything off with polished frames and sweeping shots of the expansive capitol and sets of the Hunger Games, but he’s true to his vision and the effect pays off. With numerous cuts and brief, wobbly images, he manages to keep the PG-13 rating, which if had been lingered upon would’ve certainly earned the movie an R-Rating. The Capitol and District 12 settings are so different that it would have looked uneven had he cut straight to and from each shot, but instead the camerawork sets a tone for the entire film. Credit also goes to cinematographer Tom Stern (Mystic River), startling and raw in his pallet. The constant visual exhilaration goes hand in hand with the visceral take on the games, sound dulled at parts to maximize the immediacy of the violence. The perversity of the Capitol’s extravagance is highlighted successfully in this. Violence does occasionally feel restrained, but for the most part it’s handled well.
Jennifer Lawrence continues her rise to stardom in a role that rivals her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone (which was of a very similar nature). Understandably (and regrettably), much of the narrative power that made the book so successful is lost in transition from page to screen, but the careful transparency of emotion that Lawrence displays makes up greatly for it. She’s calculating in what she shows, commanding the audience’s attention with every moment she graces the screen. Her anger, when her mother becomes near-comatose after her father’s death, her palpable insanity when her sister’s name is called at the reaping, anger when Peeta publicly claims love for her. She’s stunning, in a performance not to be forgotten anytime soon. Lawrence is one of the most impressive young talents working today, already a master of emotionally-driven roles. The supporting cast is enjoyable to watch as well. Woody Harrelson is probably not as drunk as Haymitch should have been, but nonetheless impressive, Elizabeth Banks excellent in her over-the-top performance as Effie (having come up with the portrayal of the Capitol accent). They pale next to Stanley Tucci, though, who’s a scene stealer as the eccentric Hunger Games host, Ceaser Flickerman. Amandla Stenberg is especially heartbreaking in an immediately compelling performance as Rue, and Alexander Ludwig is particularly crooked in a notable turn as Cato. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth break out of their pretty-boy shells somewhat, both believable in their portrayals but mostly shadowed by Lawrence’s powerful central performance.
It goes surprisingly fast- the movie takes a different execution than the novel, starting with a formal introduction to the games and even adding a few scenes including an uprising in District 11. I particularly enjoyed the way they handled tougher moments, including the tracker-jacker scene. Instead of raiding it with terrible special-effects, they made it hazy and took the opportunity for a flashback of Katniss’ father dying in the mines, playing a showcase for fantastic editing and visual effects in addition to exposition. They also make sure that it was night when they played out the muttation scene, so terrible Twilight-esque werewolves wouldn’t be the impression that audiences got.
The Hunger Games is ultimately a triumphant piece of Hollywood action, the visceral, superbly acted result of muscular, dedicated film making. The first critical and commercially successful children’s literary adaption since Harry Potter, it may not have the makings of a legend but sure promises to be the next cinematic phenomenon.