Arriving with a ton of hype and anticipation, The Hunger Games certainly has a lot to live up to. For the uninitiated (read: anyone who doesn’t have a strong opinion on whether they’re Team Peeta or Team Gale), The Hunger Games is an adaptation of the first in a trilogy of young adult books by Suzanne Collins…and Hollywood is fervently hoping they have another Harry Potter/Twilight-sized hit on their hands.
The books have a devoted following, and although they’re often compared to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (for no other reason than they’re bestsellers written for teens), there’s the possibility that done right, the films could have huge crossover appeal for people who have enjoyed everything from Japanese author Koushun Takami’s cult novel and resulting movie Battle Royale to William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies to Stephen King’s The Running Man. So, did director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) and screenwriters Ross, Collins and Billy Ray (Flightplan) do it right? Yes and no.
The story takes place in the futuristic nation of Panem where the government keeps control of the largely worker bee population by forcing them to compete each year in the Hunger Games. The rules state that each District must hold a lottery (called The Reaping) that will randomly select one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in the televised battle to the death. For each year a person qualifies for the lottery, their name is entered an additional time and they can also buy much-needed food credits by consenting to extra entries (the Districts live by the motto “May the odds be ever in your favour”). The final survivor is named champion and their District is provided with food for the year.
Katniss Everdeen (the perfectly cast Jennifer Lawrence) is a teenage tomboy who flouts the rules to hunt for food inside the restricted forest with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and is fiercely protective of her unstable mother (Paula Malcolmson) and fragile younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields). On the day of the Reaping, Katniss assures her terrified sister that since her name is only in the lottery once, her odds of getting chosen are low. Nonetheless, Primrose’s name is called and Katniss volunteers to go in her place. Soon she finds herself travelling to the Capitol City with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the local baker’s son to participate in the blood-soaked arena.
Nervous Hunger Games fans can rest easy because the film is mostly pretty well done: the settings described in the book are beautifully realized and the casting for each character is pitch perfect (although the jury may still be out on Hutcherson as Peeta). Also, the fight sequences inside the arena have a gritty, realistic quality that make for some pulse-poundingly tense moments – although one wonders just how much more terrifying they would have been if the film weren’t saddled with a kid-friendly rating. Even the seemingly derivative central concept is infused with enough original ideas that the story feels mostly fresh and involving even when build-up to the Games begins to feel rushed.
Still, the film can’t help but feel strangely muted and a bit at loose ends in its early stages, unable to fully tap into the book’s ample visceral emotion. Collins’ world is very large, very rich and very nuanced and the film struggles to fit all of the necessary details into the build-up to its big set piece: the actual Games. As a result, the film’s second act feels dramatically uneven and the peripheral characters (in this case, played by the likes of Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and the wonderful Lenny Kravtiz) become mere caricatures of how they were portrayed in the novel.
It’s no matter though, overall Ross has done an admirable job of making an ambitious, compelling film that will be a genuine box office hit and will no doubt please fans of the book series as well as drawing in a whole new legion of admirers. What are the odds of that?