Released in cinemas 23rd March 2012.
From the opening scenes, this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling Young Adult series of novels is a force to be reckoned with. A title card introduces the scenario: in the future, post-war United States is split into 12 industrial Districts, ruled over by the totalitarian Capitol. The workers of each district are to offer two of their teenagers, a boy and a girl, every year in an annual ‘reaping’. The children will then fight to the death in The Hunger Games, until one victor remains, in a televised event forcibly broadcast to their loved ones and neighbours. As head gamemaker Seneca Crane, Wes Bentley’s steely blue-eyed stare live on television reflects on his biggest contribution - cut to the blood-curdling screams of the 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields).
The girl is crippled with fear as her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) reassures her that she’s unlikely to be picked for the games as it’s her first year, and her name is only entered into the draw once. We then follow 16-year-old Katniss as she provides for her widowed mother in the poverty-stricken mining district. A skilled hunter, she breaks through the electric fence to hunt in the woods; as she reflects on the upcoming reaping with her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the futility of escape into the wilderness is pondered. Hemsworth has an easy rapport with Lawrence in his small role in the first film, and the potential romance is underplayed.
Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) creates a naturalistic feel to the dystopian world that is evocative of classic sci-fis of the ’70s and ’80s; the video that is played to the children before two of them are picked is an unsettling masterstroke, narrated by Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. The portrayal of the reaping is stomach churning in its quiet simplicity. With no score and the deathly silence of residents paralysed with fear, all that is heard is the frantic cries of Katniss as she volunteers to take the place of her sister. With Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) picked as the male ‘tribute’, the pair are whisked to the Capitol by their escort Effie (Elizabeth Banks) to begin training.
Normally, book-to-film adaptations are lacking in the essence of the book - things are lost, and compromised. And while certain details are left out (for book fans, Madge is extraneous in the grand scheme of things, the mute servants, Avox, are seen in the background but not explained), co-writer Ross adds an essence and depth to the story that Collins skimmed over in her page-turning book. He makes what seems unrealistic and cruel on the page feel like something that is only decades away from actually happening, as the 24 tributes are reminded that being popular will get them sponsors. That’s where Katniss and Peeta’s colourful prep team come in. The Capitol is full of grotesquely over-the-top fashion, embodied by Banks’ fabulous, chaotic mix of school teacher prissiness and twisted Forties glamour, with a superbly played undercurrent of fear. Even in her relatively small role, Banks never lets you forget that even the elite are in danger under Snow’s iron rule.
Woody Harrelson brings the wit and sass as the former victor and functioning alcoholic Haymitch, the pair’s mentor in the games, and - like the rest of the cast - has an astonishing spark of chemistry with Lawrence and Hutcherson. It’s always said that casting is 90% of a director’s work (or something to that effect). With The Hunger Games, the effortless ease of the cast’s interaction with one another and their focus on details and nuances helps the film go from good to great. As Katniss’ stylist Cinna, Lenny Kravitz has the kind of chemistry with Lawrence you can’t predict. Their fleeting scenes are some of the most memorable and moving, and it’s done with so little, as Cinna explains he’s not merely there to dress her but help her survive by making an impression. One by one the primped and preened children up in front of an excitable audience for a pre-game interview. At this point the script is masterful in its subtle commentary. Stanley Tucci is a garish sight with his blue hair and dreadful veneers, but he has a disarming charisma as the broadcast host Caesar - his interviews are revealing and unnerving.
Lionsgate have been wise not to reveal the games themselves in the trailers. Not that there’s anything too revelatory about the tributes facing off in a Capitol-controlled forest, but because the tension that builds before Katniss enters the game is unbearable. When the games begin, the film’s 12A certificate is on shaky ground, as the violence from the ‘career tributes’ is disturbing. The young cast are uniformly excellent, particularly Amandla Stenberg as little Rue.
Without spoiling, The Hunger Games becomes a hugely dramatic and powerful fight for survival, a fight to protect the vulnerable, a fight to remain true to oneself and a fight for justice, all within the confines of the trees. Lawrence is brilliant in the lead role, after some underwhelming supporting roles since her deserved Oscar nomination. She is terrifyingly resentful at times - her despair and anger jump off the screen during the key emotional moments, but she has the quiet intensity she displayed in Winter’s Bone. She’s the epitome of defiance and survival, but is not an all-out perfect hero; a lot of the time she has to rely on others’ quick wit and advice, as she’s still a vulnerable teenager. The biggest surprise, and the clear stand-out of the cast, is Hutcherson as Peeta. The revelation of this astute but affectionate realist from a choked, terrified boy is handled to perfection, with Hutcherson coming across as the heart and soul of the film. The moment when he tells an ambitious Katniss he knows he has no chance of winning is sobering.
Comparisons to Battle Royale have been made, but can now be deemed unnecessary. Royale was a satirical bloodbath, whereas Hunger is also a look at how easily a society reverts to gladiatorial spectacle, but combined with the oppression and manipulation of its poor in the deeply personal, emotional journey of one fateful girl. The tone of Ross’ film is astonishing. It doesn’t rely on explosions and FX, but the intense fear and despair of its protagonists. It’s shot so well, with the air of a lowkey independent film, it’s easy to overlook the sometimes dodgy CGI and shoddy sets. After all, what good is a $250 million special effects extravaganza without a decent story or actors, eh John Carter? One criticism that can be made is that The Hunger Games takes so much time to build this world and the tributes’ scenarios in fantastic detail, that the all-important plot points at the end feel rushed in comparison - and that’s in a film with a 142 minute runtime. The complexities of Katniss’ vital relationship with Peeta may be confusing to those that haven’t read her inner monologue in the book, and it’s the only time the script falters.
The importance of The Hunger Games for this generation cannot be overstated. For the first time in decades, cinema has another Ellen Ripley, another Sarah Connor. All comparisons with the vampire-trilogy-that-shall-not-be-named must end now. The story does come with a visible legion of hysterical fans, because teenage girls are naturally more prone to being vocal and supportive in public. A fair comparison should be made with the premieres and conventions of the Lord of the Rings era, only a decade ago. Is it fair to call The Hunger Games this decade’s Lord of the Rings, cinematically? It’s certainly the nearest thing we have to it today. Although set in fantastical worlds millenia apart, they both deal with the themes of self-sacrifice and uprising. They’ve both have been crafted with a genuine love for the source material. They both feature performances that - if took place in any other genre - would garner award nominations. An unmissable phenomenon.