Let the games begin. And it’s not quidditch at Hogwarts, or that weird baseball scene in Twilight – this is serious stuff. In Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic young adult novel, The Hunger Games, it’s a grim, relentless fight to the death. Twenty four teenagers enter: one leaves.
The best-selling book, the first of a trilogy – The Hunger Games 2012, is now a much-anticipated movie that should more than satisfy the millions of readers who enjoyed the book and work well for those coming to the story for the first time.
Director and co-writer Gary Ross, whose writing credits include Big and Dave, and whose previous films as a director are Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, has managed to balance fidelity to his source material with an inventiveness about its translation onto the screen.
The book is a first-person narrative, told by 16-year-old Katniss, a young woman who lives in a post-apocalyptic America divided into 12 districts and a far-off metropolis or Capitol. Ross doesn’t use a voice-over, and much of his exposition takes place through action, wordlessly.
In this imaginary future, a mechanism of control is The Hunger Games, an event established in the aftermath of a rebellion to keep the population in check. There is an annual ceremony, known as the reaping, in which each district contributes a boy and a girl to take part in the games. They are known as tributes. Poorer kids can put their names into the hat more often. Each time they do, they will get extra supplies for their families, but increase the risk of their being picked. Contestants are selected, given physical training and presentation guidance.
The games are filmed and televised: people from every district watch, as do the frocked-up citizens of the Capitol, who in the movie look like a cross between New Romantics and the people on Quality Street chocolate boxes.
Katniss comes from one of the poorest areas, District 12. It’s a coal mining region, and it’s also the Footscray Football Club of the competition, give or take a title: only two winners have come from this part of the world in the long history of the games.
At the beginning Ross uses close-ups and hand-held camera to give us a strong, intimate sense of proximity to Katniss and her hard-scrabble world. Already a hunter and a survivor, protecting her young sister, keeping her fragile mother close, Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) as Katniss conveys grace, a troubled introspection and a sense of purpose – she has a renegade streak, tempered with a sharp intelligence. But when her sister’s name is chosen for the games, she’s quick to volunteer to take her place.
She finds two mentors: Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the elegant stylist with the gold guyliner who helps her present a confident face to the public, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the drunken former winner with the Owen Wilson hair, whom she initially regards as a buffoon. Without laboring the point, the film suggests that the contestants need to be aware of the audience: that sponsors can supply support and relief, and help affect the outcome of the games.
Given the premise of the event, which is a fight to the death, there is a considerable amount of restraint in the actual violence shown – although the impact is still quite strong. And Ross has found clever ways of cutting from the action between the contestants to the manipulations behind the scenes.
One of the significant emotional strands of the story is Katniss’ developing relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow contender from District 12. There is a potential for a Twilight-style love triangle in The Hunger Games 2012 full movie– there is another boy in the village who is her friend and fellow-hunter – but it’s only a minor part of the narrative here, and it serves to heighten Katniss’ divided sense of self, and her strong desire for independence.
And there is the bread-and-circuses idea at the heart of the story. The notion of turning other people’s struggle into entertainment – amped up just that little bit more.
Antecedents might include the depression-era dance marathons shown in the 60’s movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Shirley Jackson’s dark vision of a survival ritual in her short story The Lottery, or a rarely seen satire about reality TV called Series 7, which had an imaginary fight-to-the-death reality show called The Contenders.
Perhaps the closest relative is Battle Royale, a Japanese novel that was made into an exhilaratingly gory film about misbehaving high school students who are dumped on an island and instructed to kill each other.
But The Hunger Games 2012‘ strength is not its social critique – rather, it’s an exhilarating sense of a character learning to control her own destiny.