Katniss Everdeen. A strange name for an unconventional heroine. She lives in Panem (a futuristic, dystopian North America) divided into 12 impoverished districts, each known for one particular characteristic or trade. The Capitol (the affluent state), in an attempt to quash any future rebellions, holds a lottery every year known as “The Reaping” where 2 candidates from each district are selected at random for a televised fight to the death. Katniss’ younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) is chosen and in a bid to save her Katniss readily volunteers in her stead. Joined by her male counterpart Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), they take a trip to the Capitol to meet their fellow tributes. They discover, with the help of their often drunk mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), peppy chaperone Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), that there’s a lot more to winning The 74th Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games is almost satirical in its approach considering the world’s current avid consumers of reality TV. It’s the Roman Empire amphitheatres of the past, George Orwell’s 1984, Aztec and Mayan sacrifices to appease the gods and a futuristic, violent I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here. Similarities have been drawn with The Running Man and Battle Royale and there’s no denying that there are some themes that overlap but it is still different enough to be considered stand-alone. One thing it is not is a Twilight substitute – better acting, no cheesy dialogue or tacky effects and one of the most faithful book adaptations.
Suzanne Collins has written a great series of books and I was worried it would lose some of its charm and appeal when transferred to the silver screen. I needn’t have worried. Gary Ross took up the task, in only his 3rd feature, to adapt a very well-known trilogy gaining traction like the aforementioned Twilight and the Harry Potter series. He not only stayed loyal to the source material but he also invented some parts which don’t feel out of place in the movie. He is supported by a noteworthy cast of the young and up-and-coming and the veterans.
Donald Sutherland is exactly how sadistic and creepy I imagined President Snow to be. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks play the over-the-top characters of show host Caesar Flickerman and Effie Trinket to perfection. Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence prove their acting chops, with a surprisingly good performance by rocker Lenny Kravitz. Woody Harrelson is comical as former victor Haymitch. The film does suffer from what most book-to-films suffer from: time, or lack thereof. Ross does well considering, he does cut out some characters from the book and those that are left sadly do become 1 dimensional because of less time to explore them and their motives. The final scene in the arena from the book, for example, is cut down significantly and not as intense or anguished.
Nitpicking aside, the film broadly achieves what it set out to with the deft guidance from the series’ author, director Gary Ross and some impressive production design. The violence is muted in order to qualify for the PG-13 rating but the story’s gruesome premise doesn’t suffer too much for it.
The heart and soul of the smart book remain here, despite dragging in parts and rushing in others, and is an interesting adventure of suspense even forgiving the Team Gale/Team Peeta deviation. However, at Katniss’ core is a fight for survival, driven by principle not by which cute boy to choose. Tom Stern’s shaky camerawork may make you feel a bit queasy but this is still worth seeing, even if you haven’t read the book. I hope The Hunger Games: Catching Fire doesn’t lose itself, and with a bigger budget, more duplicitous characters, a different director, and this solid initial outing, the odds are ever in its favour.
What did you think? A rehash nightmare or a brilliantly dark but fun commentary on society today? Your turn on the soapbox in 3, 2, 1.