I thought this movie would be terrible. From the previews, it looked like a spiritual successor to “Twilight.” Given the fangirl hysteria over “Team Gale” and “Team Peeta” (the movie’s two male leads), I predicted a repeat of the Edward/Jacob phenomenon. Though I’m a huge fan of the books (and consider them to be some of the finest young adult literature of recent years), the film looked mopey and bland.
I have never – ever – been so wrong about a movie.
“The Hunger Games” is a superlative, visceral experience that deserves every bit of its hype. It is a stellar accomplishment that works on every level, but none more profoundly than as a book adaptation. In the months leading up to its release, I did not believe it was possible for a blockbuster, PG-13 Hollywood film to capture the searing intensity of the source material.
“The Hunger Games” is a post-apocalyptic story set in a shattered United States. Twelve Districts, forced to operate under the thumb of an oppressive central government, are compelled to annually send one male and one female teenager as “tribute” to the Capitol. There, they will compete in a televised blood sport – the eponymous “Hunger Games.” When her little sister is selected by lottery for the Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) steps in to take her place. Along with baker’s boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss departs for the Capitol, where she discovers a world of exoticism and violence. Eventually, she and Peeta are thrust into the arena, where they must fight for their lives against dozens of other tributes.
A movie like “The Hunger Games” stands or falls on the success of its leads. And Jennifer Lawrence turns in a career-defining performance as Katniss. In her debut film, the Ozark neo-noir “Winter’s Bone,” she played a spirited backwoods girl defined by her tenacity. And in last summer’s “X-Men: First Class” she proved she could handle blockbuster-caliber roles. In “The Hunger Games,” she bridges the two. It is impossible to envision a performance that better captures the essence of Katniss Everdeen. Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, is nearly as effective – and the charisma of the two leads is the backbone on which the film rests.
Supporting performances are also strong. Woody Harrelson stars as Haymitch, Katniss’ mentor and a former Hunger Games champion. Still channeling the devil-may-care attitude he displayed in “Zombieland,” he provides a strong foil to the Capitol’s pomp and circumstance. Liam Hemsworth’s turn as Gale (a friend of Katniss’ in her home district) is less than appealing, but his character quickly recedes into the background. (And, to be fair, I also found him obnoxious in the source material).
Technically, “The Hunger Games” is impeccable. Production design is superb: the poverty of Katniss’ home District, the grotesque opulence of the Capitol, and the primal wilderness of the Games are beautifully depicted. Though there are a few uses of “shaky cam” techniques (particularly during the most brutal fight scenes), these feel entirely appropriate in context.
It’s also worth noting that “The Hunger Games” is perfectly paced. Despite the fact that the film clocks in at almost 2 ½ hours, not once does it seem to lag. Director Gary Ross brilliantly generates an atmosphere of lingering dread that persists throughout…one of the books’ greatest strengths, and potentially one of the most difficult to capture onscreen. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Suzanne Collins, original author of the “Hunger Games” novels, is responsible for the screenplay.
I’ve discussed the worldview of the “Hunger Games” series at length in previous literature commentaries, and the film doesn’t stray from the books’ nihilism. No mention is made of God or faith, and a generally dark tone prevails throughout. This, however, is appropriate in context. These aren’t stories about the infinite perfectibility of the human spirit: they’re grim, savage meditations on man’s capacity for unimaginable evil.
I’m honestly shocked this film managed to obtain a PG-13 rating. Though sometimes obscured by fast camera cuts, the violence remains brutal and relentless. Blood splatters, bones crunch, and children die at the hands of other children. Viewers are naturally appalled – as well they should be.
Perhaps the image that lingers most profoundly is a “replay” from a prior Hunger Games. In the clip, one teenager looms over another, hammering into the loser’s skull. As the television camera ogles the blood-slicked brick in the killer’s fist, an announcer solemnly declares that “this is the moment when a tribute becomes a victor.” That single visual – glimpsed for perhaps ten seconds – epitomizes the message of “The Hunger Games.” Man is cruel, this film fiercely proclaims, and will succumb to atavistic bloodlust if offered a chance. “The Hunger Games,” like its spiritual predecessor “Lord of the Flies,” shatters utopian fantasies. Instead – through all the blood, death and horror of the Games – man’s true colors emerge. And they are dark indeed.
The bitter irony of “The Hunger Games” is that millions of people will flock to see this movie in the theater, and will watch horrifying acts of violence committed by children against other children – just as the citizens of the Capitol are glued to their own television sets, watching the Hunger Games unfold. Humans are fascinated by death and hatred, the film warns, and that fascination may birth unbearable carnage. Does that mean you shouldn’t watch “The Hunger Games”? Absolutely not – this irony merely serves to highlight the raw effectiveness of the movie’s message. And it’s a message that our modern, desensitized culture must hear.
That’s not to say, though, that the film is appropriate for all audiences – at the very least, this is a hard PG-13 bordering on an R rating. There are a few mild profanities, but the real issue is the savage brutality on display. Mature viewers, however, will find much to ponder here – even in the midst of despair and chaos.
Is it worth seeing, then?
“The Hunger Games” is a masterpiece that exceeded my highest expectations. Leaving the theater, I tried to think of what I thought should have been done differently. And I came up with…nothing.
Flawless. Possibly the best book-to-film transition I’ve ever seen.
Normalized Score: 9.2