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What is the greatest achievement of The Hunger Games?
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of The Hunger Games, and there are many, is that in adapting an exceptionally successful teen novel its creative team have produced something that works as a movie, not just as an adaptation of a book. There’s no required reading before entering the cinema in order to ‘get it’, and it’s well above the ‘all your favourite bits but with pictures’ business that has become the accepted standard.
When a franchise has sold millions of copies, as Suzanne Collins’ trilogy has, the basic position is to produce something that will look just as readers pictured, to depict what we were all thinking, instead of offer something nobody had had in mind. The Hunger Games as a novel has been dissected, expanded and retooled into something intelligent, immersive and powerfully current.
The Capital of Panem, a futuristic America, is presented elegantly in about 90 seconds. First we see two men discussing an event called The Hunger Games in front of an audience; both men evidently so luxuriating in time and money that they can tint and trim every inch of their surface until they resemble painted couture clowns. Then, with a literal scream, we cut to District 12, where all is grey and people dress like the cast of a regional stage production of Little House On The Prairie.
This is how Panem is divided. There are the haves and the have-nots. The haves live in The Capitol, amid great wealth and power. The have-nots live in a series of impoverished districts, put under oppressive rule after a failed uprising some time in the indefinite past. Every year, two of each district’s youngest members are selected to fight to death in an arena, from which one will emerge victorious for no actual reason. The poor will do as they are told, however senseless, and the rich will keep on keeping on. The echoes of the 99%ers are clear and not unintended.
This nation bleeds with a cruelty from which director Gary Ross never retreats. Even luxury is presented as nearly oppressive — gluttonous and requiring constant effort. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), is introduced hunting a cute little deer — typically movie shorthand for a complete monster. She has no time for being wistful as she needs to make it out alive. This runs right through the movie: what is survival worth?
Lawrence is perfect as Katniss. There’s very little softness about her, more a melancholy determination that good must be done even if that requires bad things. She stretches many of the tightly anguished muscles built in Winter’s Bone — the District 12 scenes have a similar hard-bitten feel — plus some other more traditionally gym-honed ones.
The violence and cruelty is most evident in The Hunger Games arena, a huge, synthetic forest where 24 young boys and girls hunt each other, and the level of brutality is very smartly done. You don’t get a rating suitable for a teenage audience by gutting preteens or decorating the landscape with their blood. So Ross cuts around it. The restlessly searching, handheld camerawork used throughout the movie comes in most useful during moments of violence, flashing round the action and making you think you’ve witnessed everything without ever actually clocking anything that would upset your appetite.
It’s an old trick but a very effective one. The sole clunky element of these sequences is an intermittent commentary provided by Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones, which fills in incidental story details in a brash ‘Basil Exposition’ manner. When it pops up, it kills the momentum.
Arguably more interesting than the cruelty within the arena is that going on outside, which is almost entirely of the film’s invention. Different from the novel, we see The Capital’s Gamemakers pulling the strings, dispatching contestants with casual stage directions.