March 23rd saw the arrival of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”, the first part in a trilogy of books and rumoured to be the first of four films (suggesting that Mockingjay or Catching Fire will be split at some point). It follows in the footsteps of Harry Potter, Twilight and other films which have essentially been teenage fiction that have progressed to a much wider audience on the big screen. I’ve already read all three books so I was eager to see how they measured up.
The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where the remains of North America have been split into 13 districts and the Capitol. The outlying districts are all producers of various materials and products for the support of the wealthy and excessive Capitol, whether it is fabrics, produce or coal. Coming from abject poverty life is certainly hard for Katniss Everdene (Jennifer Lawrence), Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in District 12, which is where the film opens.
Given that this is virtually post-apocalyptic, the rural image that you are presented with and the prettiness of our main cast doesn’t quite fit but to the casual observer this goes without notice. A minimal amount of time is spent in the development of the film here, which I can understand in an attempt to keep runtime down as well. It does sacrifice a lot of the drive and motivation of Katniss, which in the book comes from her environment and interaction with the inhabitants. There are a number of minor changes here - like the origin of the pin - but if honest they aren’t changing the story to any great degree and it will only be readers of the book that recognise the lack of them.
The history of The Hunger Games is that 74 years ago the districts rose up against the Capitol but were beaten back down, using District 13 as a demonstration of power. Ever since then an annual display of the power of the Capitol has been demanded and every district has to supply two tributes - one girl and one boy - between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in a brutal tournament of survival, with only one winner. The Reaping is a morbid lottery presided over by Effie Trinket (a heavily made up Elizabeth Banks) to decide who are the “lucky” tributes.
In District 12, family means everything. So when Katniss’s 12 year old sister Prim is selected she can’t stop herself from volunteering instead to protect the young sibling. A display of ultimate sacrifice. Peeta’s selection is not similarly challenged and so we have our combatants.
The progression from the district to the Capitol is fast tracked in the same way that the opening has also been and it’s used as a vehicle for the introduction of Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). Kravitz plays Cinna very well - calmly and carefully which fit perfectly with my vision and the books, though the removal of the overexcited harpies that formed the make up crew diluted this a little. Haymitch on the other hand was certainly made more cinematically acceptable. Haymitch is the veteran winner of the 50th Hunger Games and therefore the mentor of the tributes from 12. In the books he is devious, logical, calculating but mostly drunk. It was alluded to in the film but I didn’t feel that this was quite the same character. Yet again the fast paced push towards the main event was to the detriment of the surrounding world.
Once in the Capitol the charm offensive begins. After a flaming chariot ride, interviews, mandatory training and other displays designed to bring the public onto their sides the tributes are thrown into the manmade arena. 24 children, all from different backgrounds, all trying to survive.
It’s at this moment that there are obvious parallels drawn to the 2000 film (and preceding manga) of Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. Many people will see the similarities, however Collins has openly described her inspiration as a mix of channel hopping between reality TV and the Afghanistan conflict, whilst also having a large drive from the tales of Theseus. This gives a much better perspective on the film as Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss is that of a strong heroine figure in a gladiatorial setting. There is an obvious role reversal as well with Hutcherson being a smaller figure on screen reinforcing the dynamic between Katniss and Peeta further. The reversal began earlier in the film with Peeta’s admission of love for Katniss, which felt somewhat underplayed. In the book it is such a key dynamic and a tool used by them (and against them) that it does feel lost within the film. Mild references get noticed but it’s only when they are in the arena does it come through.
Thus ensues the deadly games for which the film was named, with its various ups and downs courtesy of that year’s game maker, the conflicted Seneca Crane. Dedicated to his job to the point of putting himself at odds with President Snow, played coldly and calmly by Donald Sutherland in his uniquely placid but menacing style. Something that will also become key in the future.
My biggest concern about the film was how they would film the more gratuitous scenes. Aside from having to edit out some blood this has been done well. A shaky camera is employed at times to film dramatic scenes, enhancing the pace and adrenaline found within them. The use of clear wide angled shots to display the isolation also worked well.
The casting was a pleasant surprise. Both Lawrence and Hutchinson are strong in their respective roles. Sutherland, as previously mentioned, has the right level of callous control to convey the person I had created in my mind from the book. Kravitz however was a real shiny star for me. The role has been made a little less flamboyant, however the quiet strength and conviction which Cinna provides is very evident and I didn’t initially expect Kravitz to pull it off. Not a show stealer but still very strong. The other tributes were mostly for show in my opinion and served a purpose although I didn’t really find the portrayal of Thresh by Dayo Okeniyi to fit - mainly due to the scripted characterisation.
This film is guaranteed to spawn sequels and several of the cast have already signed up for further films. The teenage market will swallow it up in the wake of Twilight and a wider audience may also gravitate towards it, making this a potentially formidable film franchise. It’s slow enough to create foundations for the coming films but also quick enough that you keep interested and involved in the film. I’d watch the film before reading the books but I would warn you that doing so will draw you in on both fronts.
A really entertaining film that doesn’t ask more of you than enjoyment.
Matt Puddy is gearing up for a smorgasbord of supernatural comic books.