Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a fatherless hunter-gatherer from the twelfth outlying district of Panem, is forced to volunteer her life when her sister is picked as tribute for the Capitol’s nefarious Hunger Games. Devised both as penance for a past uprising and a deterrence from future rebellion, the Games pit a boy and girl from each of the nation’s districts against one another in a battle to the death from which only one victor can emerge, an event which is broadcast for the enjoyment or torment of the programme’s various viewers. Mentored by past victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and represented by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) must fight for survival against 46 other competitors, including 12 year-old Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and the formidable Cato (Alexander Ludwig).
It’s difficult, when it comes to things so close to the heart, or whichever obscure area of the brain is tasked with regulating such rampant faboyism, to take a step back and evaluate something as already subjective as the predicted enjoyability of a motion picture. There is, however, a certain level of detachment that can be maintained, a narrative investment that can facilitate the illusion that you are watching something – or at least this one, specific version of that thing – for the very first time. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is still its own beast, forever preserved in her source novel, but in this instance director Gary Ross has created something different, something more.
Told entirely from Katniss’ perspective, one of the first things to hit you about Collins’ storytelling is its immediacy. From the first page we are in Katniss’ world, her Panem, and from there we view the nation, in all its murky glory, through her scrutinising eyes in relentless real-time. Ross continues this intimacy, utilising an impressive arsenal of close-ups and fraught shaky-cam to immerse his 3D glasses-less audience in a dangerous and unstable environment. Unlike first person narrative, however, Ross does not seek to exclude the rest of his characters, instead using this new medium to explore Katniss’ surroundings and relationships without ever jeopardising her own agency and importance to the story.
Ross’ Panem is worlds away from that broadly sketched by Collins in a child-friendly font. Whilst the books only alluded to the reality faced by those ostracised by the Capitol – at least until the subsequent instalments – the film doesn’t shy away from the destitution and degradation endured by the denizens of the outlying Districts. Washed out and mired in filth, District 12 resembles at best a neglected shanty town and at worst a disturbing parallel with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. This bleakness is only exaggerated with the arrival of Effie Trinket and her entourage of Peacekeepers, before she remorselessly tears two families apart and whisks the District’s teenage tributes away to a Neverland of excess, a cross between Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and Whoville, where they will most likely end their young lives.
This isn’t the only example of the film taking Collins’ Young Adult novel and turning it into something undoubtedly fit for all ages. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), originally effectively relegated to the sequels, is introduced early, his dealings with the head Games Master Seneca Crane (Wes Bently) reorganised as a surprisingly effective framing device that speaks of a politically-charged world beyond Katniss’ immediate understanding. The first contemporary uprising is also brought forward, adding to the already charged atmosphere as we watch human beings refusing to cheer the death of their friends and family, a haunting impression no amount of juvenile talk about jibber-jabbers and mockingjays can seek to undo.
Thematically, this is a much stronger telling of the story, as an ever-present and ominous unrest asks serious and important questions not only about the running of a fictional future dystopia but of our own lives and society as well. Collins’ issues with reality television and other forms of distraction that aim to mask oppression, poverty and war as they happen, unchallenged, elsewhere remain intact, emphasised here by the parallels that are drawn visually. As a pruned and preened child chases his sister with a facsimile sword, desensitised to the genocide that such an act ultimately endorses, it is difficult not to shudder in ghostly apprehension of its near-inevitability.
Other improvements include a certain narrative efficacy; surprising, perhaps, as Collins’ source novel was already pretty trim, and all the more compelling for it. While some characters might have been omitted they are rarely missed, the newly reshaped relationships and causality also proving more satisfying and economical than their original configuration. The endowment of the mockingjay pin, for instance, has much more resonance coming from Prim (who was herself given it as a gift) than it would have done had it come from a cameoing mayor’s daughter, while the omission of Peeta’s father and numerous hunting sequences come as somewhat of a relief.
Perhaps the most obvious benefits offered by the medium of film, however, are the sensory aids of picture and sound, and both are used to optimum effect. In addition to the naturalistic cinematography, the bleakness of the opening segment and the unreality of the Capitol itself, Ross’ direction facilitates a number of other stand-out scenes and sequences. Inside the arena, the effects of a powerful hallucinogen on an injured Katniss and the dying sight of one particular tribute prove particularly memorable. The sound design, on the other hand, is even more effective, its expert use generating a reality – and, in some instances, subtle horror – that the images alone could not possibly convey. The soundtrack in general is one of the strongest so far this year.
But that is to seriously short-change The Hunger Games‘ biggest asset: it’s characters, brought to life by Ross’ faultless cast. The consistently compelling Jennifer Lawrence leads an outstanding cast, yet outshines them all with her interpretation of Katniss. Strong, stubborn and yet exuding a reluctant vulnerability, Lawrence breathes independence and integrity into a character who could have easily been squandered at the head of a thankless love triangle. Along with Josh Hutcherson’s dependable Peeta, they bring a nuance and dignity to a relationship which rarely delivered as construed on the page. Liam Hemsworth, meanwhile, does his best with a difficult part as boy-at-home Gale.
There are issues, however, and not all of them originate from deviations from the source material. At 142 minutes, it is debatable whether or not the already considerable running time is used to the best effect. While the initial focus on peripheral characters and interactions undoubtedly helped to establish the world and ultimately served the various themes, it also leads to an unfortunate side-lining of the arena-set action. With many of the film’s subplots already due to come into play later down the line, it is entirely possible that they blurring of the other tributes, the undermining of certain hardships and the underdevelopment of a few key relationships was not entirely necessary.
Aside from this narrative imbalance and a few precarious effects (it’s a shame the filmmakers should have such an issue with CGI fire – given the subject matter), however, there is very little that is actually wrong with Ross’ film. Harrowing, intelligent and startlingly relevant, The Hunger Games is both an entertaining film and a strong cinematic adaptation. With the second instalment – Catching Fire – offering much more in terms of action and social commentary, this should be the franchise to watch. See, a whole review and I didn’t have to mention Battle Royale once. Well, twice.