“THE HUNGER GAMES” IS A THRILLING WELL-TOLD STORY WORTHY OF A FRANCHISE
If cinema has taught us anything, it’s that totalitarian futures suck to the Nth degree. “The Hunger Games,” the newest science-fiction film to deal with a future where the government has complete control over everything “1984”-style, has an even bleaker outlook.
The world is known as Panem. Panem’s government is led by the higher class community known as The Capital, who lord as the 1% over the poor 12 districts of commoners. Apparently, centuries ago, the commoners tried to revolt and failed miserably, resulting in massive casualties on both sides. In payment for the rebellion, the Capital demands tribute from each of the 12 districts every year: one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18. These children are chosen via lottery. These 24 children are then taken to participate in a reality television show known as the hunger games, where they are sent into a digitally-controlled wilderness to kill one another by whatever means necessary until only one tribute survives. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenaged hunter from District 12, becomes our hunger games avatar in this dangerous and monstrous world of the future.
“The Hunger Games,” based on the first book in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy, is the first attempt in the last decade of failed novel adaptations (a list including “Eragon,” “Golden Compass,” and most recently “John Carter”) that actually has both the story content and the talent necessary to succeed in landing itself an envious film franchise. This is made all the more current by the franchise gap left behind by Harry Potter and (by the November release of the final film) the Twilight Saga.
The gimmicks of a great franchise include being universally appealing to all ages, incorporating as many genre elements as possible, and having outstanding characters (especially the hero and the villain). Franchises also need to succeeding in desperately making you want to see more of these characters. For this, you need characters who go beyond your average action flick or drama. “The Hunger Games” has all of this and much, much more. As someone who hasn’t read the books (but will assuredly do so now), I found myself stuck to my seat as if glued there in avid attention.
The core of this story is its most fascinating virtue: children being forced to kill children for the amusement and the superiority of the higher class. Now of any PG-13 film I’ve ever seen, this has to rank amongst the darkest of mature thematic elements. Thankfully, director Gary Ross took obvious care in how there’s isn’t a single moment onscreen where we feel that the maturity of the material is not given the full weight it deserves. The PG-13 rating, outside of a few specific killings being changed in their graphic nature, doesn’t shirk the source material’s dire tone or ugly social world.
Now I expected briskly-paced action and blunt violence. What I didn’t expect (and what rises this film far higher in terms of raw quality) was some honest emotional moments that sometimes hit harder than the violence. Certain moments ring with such grounded reality that we cannot help but relate to Katniss’ anguishing and overwhelming struggles. From her hopeless relationship with her sister to her fragile alliances made during the games, we feel every emotional cord struck within Katniss. From a protagonist avatar perspective, we couldn’t ask for more. Katniss Everdeen is the quintessential action heroine with heart, courage, and virtue that makes her truly a character we root for. She is effectively brought to life by the ever-dazzling Jennifer Lawrence, who couldn’t have been more perfect for the role.
There are dozens of memorable aspects of the film that I want to include with glowing description, but I must reign myself in a bit. One element that simply blew me away was just how deep of an immersion experience Gary Ross made the film. The opening is slow enough to establish Katniss as regular and show us what “regular” people do with themselves and how they survive. Then, from the moment she is chosen as a tribute, we enter this new reality with her that is almost just as foreign to us as it is to her. The strikingly alien way Ross directs the scenes in the Capital are so extreme in their grotesque perversion of life and entertainment that it almost casts a spell in a way experienced only by great films.
Yes, I do consider this a great film. Not a masterpiece, at least not yet. For me to judge this in all its glory, I need to see how the future of the series is handled. I would be judging certain characteristic intents and storytelling focuses slighter harder if I knew this was all we are going to get. But from what we DO have right here in front of us, “The Hunger Games” is well-executed genre filmmaking.
These characters and their relationships are delightfully complex for a genre film, with Katniss, mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and television personality Caesar (Stanley Tucci) taking center stage. Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) isn’t bad, but I don’t think he sticks out as much as he should. An actor of more depth might have tackled this complicated role seem as complicated as it is, like Andrew Garfield, Aaron Johnson, or even Aaron Paul. Someone who I’m supposed to really be questioning their motives the entire time. But overall, I really enjoyed everyone’s performance, as even the smallest role had an effective actor. But of all the performances, the ones that continue to stick with me as being extraordinary are Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci. Haymitch is just ridiculously cool to me for some reason, in both his rather tragic presence in the film (he is a drunk due to how he’s haunted by his experiences as a previous hunger games winner) and in how Harrelson brings such a brilliant degree of harshness and vulnerability to the role.
I haven’t seen a film with a 140+ minute runtime flow with such a breakneck speed since “The Dark Knight.” On the contrary, I wish the film had been a bit longer so that the film could let some smaller moments breath a bit more, especially the scenes involving Katniss and Peeta in the cave. I saw a few missed opportunities in moments like that where characterization could have taken a slight more prominent role rather than going right into getting to the next plot point. This isn’t a complaint, really. It never felt “off.” It just felt like there could have been a bit more (sometimes, maybe even a sentence more) that would have brought it all together.
We don’t get stuff like this very often: high-quality entertainment that truly is a wonder to explore its depths and crevices. It’s fresh, exciting, intelligent, edgy, and full of imagination. I understand that this could be viewed as simply as “Future Gladiators Teens,” and it very well could have become something as trite as that, but both the book and now the film measure this plot with such a social conscience and emotional core that it surpasses the apparent limitations of its general premise. This isn’t just smarter than most science fiction; it’s more epic and emotive. This is what people go to the theaters to experience. I was with it every step of the way and I enjoyed every moment of it. This whole new world to explore is one well worth visiting.
So here we are, one film done with two more possibly to come. When it comes down to whether or not “The Hunger Games” will succeed in acquiring a trilogy franchise where many other adaptations have failed, all I can say is I truly hope the odds will be ever in its favor. Where its source material is concerned, I can’t think of a worthier candidate. “The Hunger Games” is a sure winner that I hope I can revisit its world soon.