Hitting the theater with a ton of hype and anticipation, The Hunger Games full movie 2012 definitely isn’t lacking for attention. As with any project of this kind, the question is whether all of this hype is towards something worthwhile. Thankfully, The Hunger Games answers that question with a big yes.
Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is a story about Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a young girl living in “District 12,” one of the fenced-in Districts in what used to be America but is now under the ever-smiling, ever devious control of The Capitol. As a way of observing — which is to say, punishment and way of reminding everyone who’s in charge — the anniversary of a rebellion gone wrong the Districts created decades before, the Capitol holds an annual event known as The Hunger Games, in which each District has to supply a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in a contest with one simple, ruthless rule: Be the only person left alive at the end and you win.
When Katniss’ little sister, Primose (Willow Shields), is announced to become a competitor, Katniss does what comes instinctively and volunteers to take her place. Along with her District’s male contestant, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she is whisked off to the Capital for a bizarre bit of pampering and celebrity treatment… all leading up to the time when she, Peeta and 22 other teenagers will have to murder each other.
No, The Hunger Games is definitely not using an original concept – and no, I’m not talking about Battle Royale, but rather tales going back much further than that, from The Running Man to Death Race 2000 to, heck, Spartacus (which, lest we forget, is based on real events) in which those in power force those who are not into bloodsport as a sick form of entertainment. Forget that this isn’t breaking new ground (the old adage, “there are no new stories”, holds entire-true here), as what’s essential is that Collins (who co-wrote the screenplay) has created an enthralling story, revolved around an extremely compelling, easy-to root-for heroine.
As a fan of the book, it’s with huge relief that I can say co-writer and director Gary Ross gets the tone of The Hunger Games right. This is a grounded, thoughtful and sometimes pretty emotional kind of movie, with its grim scenario given due weight. Ross doesn’t give the film a glossy, romanticized “Hollywood” feel, but rather plays everything very realistically and stark, as Katniss must endure these outrageous and horrible scenarios.
I’m sure there will be hundreds of debate about the fact that this movie uses “shaky-cam” techniques, with that documentary-like, handheld feel seen in everything from the Bourne sequels to Friday Night Lights (and certainly, even more extremely in countless “found footage” movies). It takes some getting used to here and there are moments in the film where Ross goes too far with it as things get too, well, shaky, to a distracting extent. Fortunately, for the most part, the technique calms down as the film goes on and shooting it this way does add to the film in certain ways, as Ross presumably intended.
The world of Hunger Games is one of extremes. Katniss and her fellow District 12 people are poor and downtrodden, but the citizens of the Capital are in a much more wealthy, outwardly “sci-fi” setting, and embody garish, over the top (and just plain stupid) clothes and styles. The pseudo-documentary style helps sell that this is, in fact, a place where people, even distorted ones, actually live.
The other major plus point to using shaky-cam here is when it comes to the explicit content. The Hunger Games is about kids killing each other, and it would be difficult to not get an R rating (which is unnecessary and would exclude a bunch of the book’s core fanbase) if you wanted to portray this onscreen, shot in a traditional manner. But Ross is instead able to make things more abstract — flashes of weapons being used, blood splattering, screams — which convey the horror of what is happening without showing it in graphic detail. It’s effective, added to by featuring a close-up of so many of these poor kids’ face in death, emphasizing what is happening here.
Light and fluffy this is not, but it is continually fascinating and involving. This is in no small part due to the work of Oscar nominee Lawrence. Katniss goes through tons of suffering and pain, both mental and physical, still is an incredibly strong, tight-thumb person, and Lawrence does an excellent job of showing the moments when Katniss feels most vulnerable, while retaining that inner strength. As others have noted, when comparing Hunger Games to that other novel-turned-movie series that teen girls have been obsessed with in recent years, Katniss is pretty much the opposite of Bella Swan, an independent and fierce young woman who is not defined by (or obsessed with) the men in her life.
Yes, guys, there is a love triangle element to Hunger Games, but first and foremost, it’s hardly the central part of the story, which, again, involves kids being forced to kill one another. In this first part of the trilogy, Katniss’ best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), is a fairly small character, in terms of screen time, though he still makes an impression as a steadfast, tenacious guy.
As for Peeta, there’s a lot to love about how he is played in the film. While he’s an inherently good person, and isn’t lacking in physical strength, Peeta is obviously in trouble when it comes to The Hunger Games – even while he himself says that Katniss, who’s one hell of a goddess with a bow and arrow, has some ready-made skills for such a ruthless competition.
Katniss is much more of a classic hero figure, with Peeta in what is usually the damsel in distress role, often needing to be protected. But Hutcherson brings the right, sweetness and vulnerable aura to the role, to make you feel for him. And kudos to Ross and company for not bothering to try to hide that Lawrence is taller than Hutcherson – a rare thing in Hollywood indeed when it comes to male and female leads.
A witty aspect of Collins’ book, which is retained here, is how it actually somewhat subverts and reflects upon how you can control an audience and put them in the palm of your hand by fusing a love story into the proceedings – which, yes, is amusing given that a certain sect of Hunger Games fans do adore so much the love story aspect. In the world the novel and movie are set, The Hunger Games are a televised show, and as Katniss and Peeta’s coach, Haymitch (a perfectly cast Woody Harrelson, who captures the right combination of cynicism and caring) reminds them, they can get the crowd on their side by playing up a romance angle…. Which in this case, can really save their lives, if the rich “sponsors” watching decide to send them vital items in the middle of the game.
All of the book’s recognizable characters are well cast, including Elizabeth Banks as the Capitol’s representative in District 12, Effie Trinket (who’s very much drank an entire bottle of Kool-Aid), Amandla Stenberg as The Hunger Games‘ youngest and smallest competitor, Rue, and Wes Bentley as the head “Gamemaker,” Seneca Crane – with Bentley sporting one hell of a brilliant Future Beard. And despite some understandable wariness his casting caused, Lenny Kravitz actually has the appropriately calming, capable vibe as Katniss’ Capitol-assigned “stylist” Cinna, whose job is it is to make her look her best before the bloodshed begins.
Donald Sutherland brings the appropriate menace as the main villain of the series, President Snow, who gets a few additional scenes in the film not seen in the book. And Stanley Tucci is darkly fun as Caesar Flickman, the smiling, glad-handing, falsely sympathetic host each contestant must speak to before entering the games – the Jay Leno of the Capitol, if you will.
The Hunger Games has its faults. Aside from the aforementioned quaky-cam sometimes being a distraction, the picture doesn’t quite nail its very last moments, ending on more of a hazy, “Okay, I guess that’s it for now” feel than a “I can’t wait for the sequel!” vibe they were likely going for.
Also, Ross (whose previous project as a director finds Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) demonstrates his inexperience with action at times – while it was his purpose to not glamorize the events inside The Hunger Games or make us cheer for what is happening, there are still sequences where things could still have been a bit more explosive or tense when physical confrontations are happening.
But on the whole, The Hunger Games is a remarkable accomplishment, delivering on its source material and embracing the core elements that have helped the novels stand out from other series aimed at the same demographic. Both fans of the books and those brand new to the story of Katniss Everdeen will find The Hunger Games compelling. With the first film proving the series is in good hands, I’m excited to see the next chapters play out onscreen.