I will be the first to admit that I’m not much of a book reader. I rarely have the time to devote to reading a novel, so when a film comes out based on a popular book series I rarely have any reference to go on. The only thing for a film reviewer to do in this case is to give an honest opinion based on the movie alone. I did this with the Twilight films and I will have to do this with Suzanne Collins’ novels turned into films as well. The premise of The Hunger Games is sort of a cross between The Running Man and The Truman Show. The film is set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live TV. From District 12, our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to take her younger sister’s place after she gets picked to go into battle. The boy that gets chosen, Peeta Mellark, just so happens to be someone that has a fondness for Katniss. The two of them, along with 22 others from the 11 remaining districts, are taken to the Capitol to prepare for the games.
The film does move a bit slow in the beginning, however, once all players get to the Capitol and the preparation starts, the pace picks up and it becomes much more interesting. I’m not saying that the first part of the film is bad…not by any means, but for those expecting an all out slaughter from the get go, you will be severely disappointed. Director and co-screenwriter Gary Ross does a fine job of building up the drama that unfolds in the second half of the picture. All of the characters, with the exception of Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), are each given just enough backstory to let the audience really feel for the choices they have to make once the games begin. Katniss is the film’s heroine. Her character carries the weight of the film and her casting was probably the most important part of the pre-production process. Luckily for Lionsgate and the future of the franchise, choosing Jennifer Lawrence was a very wise decision. Not only does Jennifer embody the heartbroken teenager that longs to have a better life for her and her sister, but she also has a ruggedness about her that makes her believable as an action heroine.
Besides Lawrence’s excellent performance, the rest of the cast does good work as well. Not having read the book, I can’t compare how the characters are written to how they are depicted in the film. Woody Harrelson is the standout of the group and his portrayal of Haymitch Abernathy, a former District 12 winner who won the 50th annual Hunger Games competition. The character lightens up the seriousness of the film a bit. When we first see Haymitch, he really could care less about the upcoming event. As he spends more time with Katniss, he gains more interest in how she will perform. He starts believing that she can actually win the games. It’s fun to see the character go from not being interested at all to becoming Katniss’ biggest ally. Josh Hutcherson holds his own as the other District 12 member, Peeta Mellark. He doesn’t have as strong a screen presence as some of the other actors in the film, but he gives a serviceable performance here. Liam Hemsworth, who plays Gale (Katniss’ childhood friend), doesn’t have a lot to do in this first installment. However, he does appear to be cast nicely in the role for which will see more screen time in the next installment. There is a love triangle brewing between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. Gale wants to run away with Katniss. He tells her this prior to the ‘reaping’ (which is what they call the event where they choose the players) and you can tell he wants to be more than just friends. It is inevitable that Peeta and Katniss would end up becoming romantically involved. They are basically forced onto each other throughout the film and their relationship eventually plays the biggest role of all in how the game is played…and how the rules are suddenly changed midway through the event. Wes Bentley (best known for his creepy character in American Beauty) does solid work as Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker. Seneca is basically the man who oversees how the game is being played and decides where to make changes when needed. However, he is not the boss. President Snow (intensely portrayed by Donald Sutherland) is the leading figure of Panem. Depicted as a cruel and evil man he holds the districts of the country tight under the control of the Capitol. When Katniss and Peeta begin to rebel against the rules of the game, you can sense that it really gets under his skin. He advises Seneca to do what he must in order to regain control of the game…but the end results are not to his liking. The final scene of the film is a brilliant intro to the next. President Snow is angry. You can see it in his eyes…and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for Peeta and Katniss next. I love the way director Gary Ross builds the tension for the next film. It’s always nice for the first installment of a franchise to leave the audience with a nice tease for the next one.
A lot has been made about the violence in The Hunger Games…and deservedly so, to a degree. Yes, once the game begins, it is brutal. Several deaths occur within seconds and what makes them so memorable is the fact that we get to see these children as themselves before they are tossed into this battle royale. I found myself adoring little Rue (the youngest player played by Amandla Stenberg) as she manages to avoid death and make an alliance with Katniss. I also found myself really hating Cato (played by Alexander Ludwig). He is the most despicable person actually playing the game because he is the most brutal…and least emotional. The finale of the battle is exciting when it comes down to him and our heroine. The other players each have a memorable moment, even if there death is quick. Casting is the most crucial part of a film that’s based on a popular novel. If the cast doesn’t fit the way the characters are depicted in the book, then the fan base will balk at the film. It appears that the makers of The Hunger Games got it right. For the most part, the reviews I’ve read from die hard fans of the novel state that the casting was really good.
The action sequences are handled well by Gary Ross. If I have one main gripe about the way it is filmed, it’s that there is a bit too much camera shaking going on. Several times when our characters are running through the woods or being chased, the camera shakes way too much and it’s really unneccessary. Also, the first half of the film does drag slightly in parts, but nothing excessive. Keep in mind that the action really doesn’t begin until midway through the picture. Being from North Carolina, it was nice to see the beautiful landscape shown throughout the movie. The cinematography is well done and the filmmakers make the most of the area used for filming. Ross shows that he has a talent for letting his actors carry the weight of the material. In other words, he lets them develop and transform into their characters with ease. This is a dramatic production…make no mistake about that. The subject matter is intense, and yes, unrealistic, at least for our time now, but it isn’t so over the top that it becomes unwatchable. Time was taken to make sure the film would not be a bust and credit must be given to all involved. I enjoyed The Hunger Games as a movie and eagerly await Catching Fire, the next installment. Unfortunately, due to Lionsgate wanting to complete the sequel by the end of the year due to Jennifer Lawrence having to film the X-Men: First Class sequel early next year, Gary Ross has dropped out of filming it. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) has been offered the job. His previous efforts include Constantine and I Am Legend. Both of those are solid films, so he appears to be a decent choice.
If you are in debate on whether or not to see this film, I recommend checking it out simply to see rising star Jennifer Lawrence. She alone is worth the price of admission. Plus, even though it’s not the most original premise, the film is very entertaining. So will hardcore fans like it? Absolutely. Will people who may have not read the books still be able to enjoy the film without needing a lesson beforehand? Yes. And I think the film leaves enough things to the imagination that people will go to the novels for more insight, which is the trademark of a great adaptation.
The Hunger Games