The Hunger Games
A faithful adaptation that surpasses the source novel, The Hunger Games is impressive.
The much anticipated adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is set for release this Friday, and achieves perhaps the ultimate goal of any project of this type – transcending its source material to create a film version which surpasses the quality of the book.
Very briefly, the plot concerns a post-apocalyptic United States, now known as Panem, which consists of the ruling Capitol and twelve outlying districts. Every year, each district offers up two teenage “tributes”, with the twenty four unfortunates dispatched to a reality TV arena to fight to the death, with one winner standing at the end. Many comparisons have been made with similar premises in fiction, but this seems a little unfair. After all, all stories are old stories, and you can trace the origins of this tale all the way back to Theseus and the Minotaur, let alone Battle Royale or Series 7: The Contenders.
Certainly the early scenes set in heroine Katniss’s home in District 12 are arresting. A refreshingly realist take on near-future science fiction which presents a worryingly plausible future Earth, populated by downtrodden proles and white-clad “peacekeepers”, the design work evokes classic dystopian stylings. Perhaps the most chillingly effective scene in the entire film is the “Reaping”, when the tributes are selected. Handled with no soundtrack, just the eerie, frightened silence of the crowds, these scenes resonate emotionally on a level that sets the bar almost impossibly high. Indeed, the most memorable moment across the whole 142 minutes is a simple, heart breaking shot of a sacrificial 12 year old girl, tucking in her shirt so as to appear presentable on television. This section of the film is so poignant, so stark and neutrally shot as to fully draw us in to the horror of the tyrannical world the characters inhabit. The design of the Capitol itself has drawn some criticism, but its grotesque fashions and boldly presented citizens actually make for a powerful contrast with the early scenes, neatly establishing the “us and them” nature of Panem society for the audience.
Much hype has been generated surrounding the performances in this film. Whilst it is nothing new to report that Jennifer Lawrence is a phenomenally talented young actress, what is remarkable here is just how much the performances of her and co-star Josh Hutcherson give The Hunger Games its heart. Much of the source material is written as an internalised monologue, so for Lawrence to be able to capture the essence of Katniss with a well-judged physical performance and insightful body language is hugely commendable. The unexpected breakthrough performance comes courtesy of Hutcherson, with his unique mixture of nobility and trepidation the perfect interpretation of Peeta, Katniss’ male counterpart. The pair are able to anchor what is in theory an epic sci-fi production with a very human central relationship, which is surely an achievement in these days of effects-laden blockbusters.
The supporting cast are no slouches, either – Woody Harrelson brings his unique charisma to Haymitch in a turn which looks through the outward comedy of the character and brings out something far more interesting, and Elizabeth Banks takes Effie Trinket, who could have been an infuriating comic relief character, and uses her to embody the fear and oppression of Capitol rule. Lenny Kravitz brings a reassuring empathy at vital moments, and in her brief role, young Willow Shields will have tears flowing as Katniss’ younger sister Prim.
There are one or two stumbles as things progress to the games themselves. Violent, grubby and shocking, the games are presented with a genuine immediacy via an almost low-budget approach to filming. Whilst director Gary Ross’s low-key, handheld approach to shooting certainly enhances the intensity of these scenes, the tendency to include too much of the dreaded shaky-cam becomes irritating at points, and that intensity is harmed a little by the seven seconds of cuts the British release has been subjected to. This is not a seamless edit – the clumsy cuts can be seen a mile off, and some potentially memorable scenes suffer because of it. T-Bone Burnett’s score is for the most part a subtle, unobtrusive one, but in one or two scenes in the third act it has a tendency to swell into melodrama which serves to undermine the emotion of moments which could have been carried by the strong performances alone.
In being judged as an adaptation, not only is the film loyal to the book, it actively enhances it. Making the odd necessary dramatic edit, some of the more ludicrous elements of the original story are trimmed. Without wanting to anger fans of the original story, Collins does have a tendency to write herself into corners, relying on lazy deus ex machina to advance the final act. Happily, the film circumvents these moments, with perhaps the one missed beat in the entire story being a late scene between Katniss and Peeta which causes the film to grind almost to a halt, just when the intensity should have been built.
The Hunger Games will no doubt prove a popular franchise, with the second and third editions sure to thrill. It’s refreshing to be treated to a science fiction blockbuster of this scale that is very human at its heart, and is propelled by some truly impressive performances. One or two missteps aside, The Hunger Games is an impressive accomplishment for all involved, but is not without its flaws.