Film fans have seen various visions of dystopia and its many hypothesized forms for decades. From Brazil to Equilibrium, from Logan’s Run to The Running Man, there’s no shortage of dismal looking futures. Yet as bleak as those titles paint their depicted worlds, The Hunger Games lets us know that hope and heart are still part of the human condition. But very much like our own society the aftermath still yields the ‘haves‘ and ‘have nots‘. In The Hunger Games the socioeconomic divides between The Capitol and The Districts are likened to the serf system of the medieval times. Yet the class split is much closer to home than some may realize. The next series of young adult novels to be adapted for the big screen (and into a budding franchise), the first leg in Susanne Collins’ popular trilogy hits swiftly and with the odds very much in its favor.
In the distant future, North America has fallen to ruin. What exists now it is the nation of Panem* – an opulent Capitol that governs the twelve outlying districts. Ruling with a mighty, albeit well-dressed and highly stylized, fist The Capitol keeps the districts (divided by the serf level of goods/materials they manufacture) in line by forcing them to send one boy and one girl to participate in the annual Hunger Games. In this televised form of elitist and aristocratic entertainment, the youngsters fight to the death on live TV. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have been chosen to represent District 12 and they face not only most-certain death but also feelings for each other which prompts the question: Survival or love?
Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, one of the 12-17 year-olds chosen in “the reaping” to fight to the death, is fierce but like all tweens is highly vulnerable. She’s used to fending for herself but anyone so outside their element is bound to be bewildered, nervous and frankly terrified. It’s that humanity in Lawrence’s delivery that leaps off the screen from this scarily believable future. So tangible in fact that it doesn’t take long for you to really care about her and Hutcherson’s characters and the choices they are forced to make to survive/win the games. As they’re thrust into the a game without any say in the matter, it’s kill or be killed. Sure we’ve seen it in literally every other movie but while you’d expect it in The Running Man there’s little remorse or guilt in the lead’s actions. Here, seeing the confusion, the tough choices and the consequences in the aftermath brings out levels of thick and endearing realism.
On a worldly level, the palpable realism in the The Hunger Games starts to make you wonder just how close we really are from the futuristic realistic indulgences of Panem. Really, it’s not that far fetched. We watch sporting events and also ludicrous amounts of reality TV. In The Hunger Games the two are merged in a way that harks back to the times of gladiators. Yet much like disposable forms of entertainment, watching even something as horrid as the deaths of teenagers has become socially acceptable (mandated is more like it) it’s comparable to watching any number of banal reality programs. The Hunger Games is like the Super Bowl but the tournament is not just entertainment. There’s something deeper and undeniably more human; it’s about intimidation, oppression and constant reminder that the Districts are living under the rule of the Capitol.
Lots of relevant and timeless social issues are woven into the subtext. Taking it even further and putting it on the playing field are the alliances created among the District’s tributes prior to the tournament. It’s not just one-on-one out there in the area, it’s about outnumbering, intimidation, pack mentality, etc but primarily survival. You have rich layered leads but can easily say the same for the villains and their supporting roles. All of these intricate elements no doubt come from Collin’s material but you have so much more depth to the characters, their mindsets and motivations than something like the Cullens or the wolf pack in Twilight. That said, and this may be attributed to the running time, we still only got glimpses of who the characters really are. It would have helped to know/see even more about Katniss, Peeta, Cinna, Haymitch as well as President Snow. Perhaps that’ll be the focus of the material in the sequels.
While Lawrence (Katniss) and Hutcherson (Peeta) are the stars/romantic leads they are lifted even higher thanks to a wonderful mix of supporting characters. Woody Harrelson as Haymittch (winner of an earlier Hunger Games tournament and now mentor to Katniss and Peeta) and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna (the Tom Ford-esqe image/publicity consultant) provide added layers of depth to the story giving advice preparing them for the games. Even someone like Stanley Tucci (playing a TV host who is equal parts Oprah Winfrey and Bruno Tonioli), who isn’t really out for their best interest is still, with his small inclusion, just another great Carnivalesqe back drop to play off. One thing that might have really put this over the top is a more driving and weighty score. The contributions from James Newton Howard and T Bone Burnett seemed to be holding back. Nothing was really underplayed but a film of this scale and grandeur might have benefited from, nay, almost requires a prominent musical theme a la The Dark Knight.
The Hunger Games is paced extremely well, with great foreshadowing and adequate character reveals/development, there’s not a whole lot to carp about. Gary Ross’ direction here is reminiscent what he did with Seabiscuit; he makes us care for characters in a world few will ever know. Further, he streamlines something so logistically epic but also manages to get a lot of material on screen without it feeling confusing, convoluted or bogged down. The result is something so well crafted and enjoyable that it most certainly will be one of the this year’s very best. This may be an extremely bold opinion but the level of quality existent in the story and the delivery on screen makes this film The Empire Strikes Back equivalent of young adult adaptations. It’s an intense, heartfelt and heart-stopping story. Only one thing can make this fantastic cinematic experience any better…the sequels.
*To those new to the series, this area map below shows what Suzanne Collins imagined Panem (and the 12 Districts) to look like in her books.
(Click the image to see a full size hi-rez version)