Based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is essentially dystopic science fiction for the YA set. It is a hodgepodge of several other (and better) pictures and it is, in all honesty, rather weak sauce on its own merits. The film lacks impact and emotional scope, despite some rather compelling scenes, and remains a well-polished but relatively stale exercise.
Now obviously The Hunger Games is the next big Hollywood franchise for young adults, so it almost inevitably invites comparisons to the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight. These comparisons are, to be kind, rather annoying in that they undermine the quality of the initial picture. Suggesting that The Hunger Games is better or worse than Twilight seems, at least to me, meaningless.
Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen. She is a 16-year-old girl from District 12 in Panem, a sort of post-apocalyptic wonderland. District 12 appears to be mostly filled with coal miners, although they seem to have really nice teeth. Anywho, the nation of Panem has a wealthy Capitol that has been perpetually punishing the poorer Districts by demanding “tribute” in the form of a young man and young woman in a sort of survivalist Battle Royale to the death.
Katniss winds up as the female entrant when she offers herself as tribute in lieu of her sister (Willow Shields). Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is the male entrant. He and Katniss share an interesting relationship and are taken under the wing of reluctant mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). When the 74th Hunger Games commence, Katniss finds herself in a world of audiences, sponsors and cameras in trees as she fights for her survival.
Obviously a lot can be said for the number of other things that have similar plotlines and approaches to The Hunger Games. This is not an exceptionally innovative work, that’s for sure, but few things are wholly original anymore. Whether or not Gary Ross’ film is any good depends on how well the elements come together and how well the story is told, not just how “original” it is or isn’t – Battle Royale joke aside, of course.
The good news is Jennifer Lawrence. She is a formidable Katniss, although the screenplay doesn’t really give us a lot of background or emotional depth to cling to. We know she can shoot a bow and arrow and we know she’s a good hunter. There’s a strapping young lad who probably likes her (we can tell by his knowing glances and his friendlieness) and there’s another young lad who also probably likes her. No female heroine in modern films could do with just one potential love interest, after all.
The bad news is that The Hunger Games is shot strangely, the action sequences are hard to follow and the pressure is nearly imaginary. The rickety effects don’t help and the much-discussed “shaky cam” only has a distancing effect. The tactic seemingly attempts to add realism, but the lack of blood and truancy of any costs of violence undermine the approach. Add a group of dumb-looking pooches, hidden in the gloom to avoid showing us any real special effects of value, and you’ve got The Hunger Games’ apex.
It is disconcerting to see a bunch of youngsters turn so precipitously violent and vicious, as the group of kids hunting Katniss (the “Careers,” apparently) do. This would’ve been interesting to explore and is indeed fascinatingly dark, but The Hunger Games is so keen to starve us of any significant characterization that the kids are merely bodies to pile up.
The film’s view is confined to Katniss, which works to some extent but doesn’t serve to place things in a larger frame of reference. Perhaps the events of The Hunger Games will come to have greater emotional and philosophical implication in consequent movies in the series, but for now the domain of Panem is far from the prurient, cruel, curious realm it seems like it should be. It’s more like Sherwood Forest on radiation.