MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: By turns pedestrian and pretentious, Gary Ross’s adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s young adult novel still delivers a good deal of suspense and a remarkable ensemble cast.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Every year, the districts of Panem offer tributes, 24 boys and girls, to fight in a televised competition—the Hunger Games.  When her sister Prim is called during the Reaping Ceremony, Katniss Everdeen offers to take her place.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong ensemble performances from new and seasoned performers; intriguing glimpses of a totalitarian world that never gets too preachy; deft handling of action sequences and characters; a dark premise…
CONS: …that could be darker given said premise; too long; Gary Ross’s scattershot direction; a bit too familiar for the well-versed science fiction viewer; feels like a buffer was placed between the movie and the viewer.

An early scene shows the strength and key weakness of The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross’s adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s grim 2008 dystopia.  During the Reaping ceremony, Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) stands in a fenced area with the other girls as the clownishly dressed and painted Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) draws a name to serve as District 12’s tribute for the Hunger Games, a televised contest involving mortal combat between twenty-four boys and girls, with only one standing as victor.  When Trinket announces Katniss’s twelve-year-old sister Prim (Paula Malcomson) as tribute, Katniss, obviously panicked and terrified, suddenly volunteers to take her place.  Lawrence evokes a degree of fear and desperation so powerful that it contrasts with the events leading up to this moment, in which the other boys and girls sullenly mill about as their parents look on, similarly dismal.  Even though the Reaping and the Hunger Games represent a seventy-year tradition for the nation of Panem (which devised the Games as punishment after an uprising by District 13), and despite the obviously totalitarian regime overseeing all of the districts now inhabiting North America, everybody wears the scene with acceptance and resignation, and without protest.  I write this review as the nation expresses its outrage at the death of Trayvon Martin and wonder if even the most indifferent parents would so passively accept even the idea that a regime could send their children off to a nearly certain death.

Why does this matter?  Perhaps because Collins’s novel compelled reader interest despite obvious lapses.  Reading like a mélange of Robert Sheckley’s “The Prize of Peril,” Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, The Hunger Games told its tale from Katniss’s point of view, allowing her to be a full citizen of Panem and District 12, where her observations of others might seem far more matter of fact.  The movie, by contrast, draws on so many other dystopias, from elements of Rollerball and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to The Running Man and Death Race 2000, that Ross builds an unintentional buffer between the movie and the audience, thus causing this major scene to play somewhat falsely.  (It doesn’t help that coal miners make up the population of District 12, yet everybody seems far too clean.)  But only somewhat, because despite the implausibility of the setup, Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson compel interest as Katniss and Peeta Mellark (District 12’s second tribute).

Indeed, at first glance The Hunger Games’s strength appears to rest solely on its cast and performances.  As Katniss and Peeta ride a train to Panem’s capitol city they meet their hard-drinking trainer Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only person in District 12 who ever survived the Hunger Games.  Once at the capitol Katniss meets the stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and is given a makeover.  The President (Donald Sutherland) oversees the capitol and Panem itself while smarmy, obsequious Seneca Crane (Wes Bently, who wears a black beard that looks like the hibiscus background of a smartphone) oversees the Hunger Games itself.  Even Stanley Tucci and Toby Smith play television hosts Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith, respectively, with a relish and zeal that never dips into scenery chewing.

Additionally, the sequences in the capitol allow screenwriters Ross, Collins, and Billy Ray to flesh out the world of Panem, from its pageantry to the crass manipulation of its media.  Its citizens dress in cotton-candy-colored clothing and similarly hued hair, looking a little like the underground denizens of L.Q. Jones’s A Boy and His Dog.  While interesting, ultimately the commentary comes across as heavy-handed, notably as Flickerman tries to play Katniss and Peeta as District 12’s star-crossed lovers.  Worse still, the movie drags as Katniss and Peeta run through their training as a matter of course, and the movie seems to run out of steam just before the Games begin, as if the screenplay can’t bring itself to the main event.  Think of Rocky without the final fight.

But when the players find themselves in the ring — in this variation of the games a forest — everything coalesces.  Ross’s direction finally settles into place, and the characters show the cunning and strength that hovered into realization in all preceding scenes.  As members of other districts hunt Katniss, she tries to move as far away from the action as possible, but Crane engineers a forest fire to move her back on track.  Ross builds tension and suspense in many sequences (especially the scene where Katniss drops a hive of tracker jackets onto a pack of gamers), though he cannot help but build a buffer.  The brutal killing of adolescents, while grim, should pack more of a punch.  Granted, the movie needed to lighten its mood in order to receive a PG-13 rating, but sacrifices the disturbing depths it could have explored, making merely disturbing what could have been chilling and harrowing.

And yet The Hunger Games nonetheless manages to be affecting and powerful in spite of multiple misgivings.  It retains a good deal of Collins’s novel while showcasing its strong cast, and while a bit aloof, demonstrates care for its characters seldom seen in most adaptations.  It’s not perfect, but it is perfectly acceptable.

7 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games (2012)”

  1. …with a relish that zeal that never dips into scenery chewing.”

    –Why are so many blog writers careless about spelling and grammar? We can wait to read what you have written while you proof before posting. Or can we? Is this lack of attention simply symptomatic of our online culture of instant, albeit disposable, gratification? Such carelessness puts me in mind of all those drivers who will not take a moment to observe the meaning and intent of a stop sign. What is your hurry?

    Otherwise, you have presented a fair and comprehensible review. Though in actuality this film is critic proof. It is exactly what America feeds on; its “pain quotidien”. They will eat it up.

      1. You are welcome. I enjoy the intelligence of this site and its writers. Quotidien or quotidian. It may be spelled both ways. I chose the former.

  2. I agree that the film is acceptable but lacks bite. (Spoilers ahead): One thing that gets me is the way the berries scene was handled. It was so matter of fact when it should have been triumphant and brave. We aren’t given the ability to see why it becomes the revolutionary act that the later books view it as. I felt like there were a lot of moments that worked that way–they did the job but lacked something truly memorable.

  3. Thanks, Derek. Hollywood neutering the bite of the books (especially to get that coveted rating) sounds like what happened.

  4. I just saw the film and thought it was okay in that the pacing was good and I liked the actors but it was pale as compared to Battle Royale, especially the novel.

    Many say HG is a ripoff of Battle Royale and I believe it. The story is one big plot hole and that suggests taking the plot of a well thought out story and attempting to fit it into your hasty copy.

    In BR the students do not know they’re in a death match until they’re in it. That allows for mixed emotions and moral dilemma, which is what makes that book great, all the deep character studies. In addition, it makes a fun analogy for school and work life which has been designed by previous generations. In HG the games have been televised for nearly a hundred years and so there should be little shock or lack of preparation for being in them. I would imagine such a world would be like ancient China where farmers constantly trained with poor weapons to fight overlords with real weapons. No one in HG would find the televised murder of little girls shocking because how many times has that been seen and reviewed on talk shows? That’s the big plot hole, people acting in unlikely ways given the premise of the story.

    The shock of being in the games ruined the the film for me.

    In addition, there was a very poorly thought out scene where a person climbs a tree, their enemies have a bow, shoot two arrows, give up, and decide to sleep under the tree. I think a person with one arm could shoot a bow 15 feet and hit the target. Stuff like that made unlikely behavior worse and took me out of the immersive experience.

    More:

    Magical Negro: I’m insanely tired of this gimmick.

    Everyone who is black in the film is nice and support of the character. AND there is a magical negro who shows up, in a tree top, to provide the solution to a trap. This usually results in death for the black beloved, but unidimensional, character, and guess what.

    Blonde Equals Evil: Most of the truly ugly characters are blondes and they chase the brunette character, and that represents WWII prejudices.

    Lots of blonde people fought the Nazis so let’s shoot that and the black angel/victim for whites in the head please.

    Are there government orders to include these cliches in every film?

    If so, I’m ready for the revolution.

  5. Compelling premise, but not for the thoughtful reader
    I’ll be honest and say that I wanted to love this book. I was breathless with excitement when I downloaded it, and couldn’t wait to start reading. With the rave reviews coming from almost everywhere I turned, right down to celebrities gushing their love for this series, I went into it with high hopes.

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