The Hunger Games is the story of a dystopian future where the nation of Panem has replaced the former United States. To remind the citizens of Panem who is in control, two children between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected to represent each of the twelve districts in the annual Hunger Games. The final 24 tributes are then put in an arena where they must kill or be killed – as there can be only one victor. When 16 year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hears her little sister’s name called out at the reaping ceremony, she volunteers to go in her place and is whisked away to the Capitol with her fellow district 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) to prepare for the games.
Based on the immensely popular book by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games manages to encapsulate both the emotion and action of the original text. Lawrence is simply perfection as Katniss, showing her cold exterior, survival instincts and determination alongside her love for her sister, her compassion and intelligence. Hutcherson also does very well as Peeta, both through his adoration of Katniss and charismatic way of controlling a crowd. The two together are fascinating to watch.
“[Hope] is the only thing stronger than fear,” – President Snow
The supporting cast includes Elizabeth Banks as the eternally optimistic and organised Effie Trinket, Woody Harrelson as the permanently inebriated Haymitch, Stanley Tucci as the blue-haired and white-teethed interviewer for the games Caesar Flickerman and Donald Sutherland as the chillingly sinister President Snow. When a film is led by such an impressive core cast such as this, the rest of the cast could easily have been forgettable. However, each of the actors in the film brings something to their respective roles whether it’s Willow Shields as Katniss’s sister Prim, Amandla Stenberg as the adorable and endearing Rue or Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the stylist who makes Katniss ‘the girl on fire’. Kravitz puts in a refreshingly straight-faced and honest performance as the daring stylist so many Hunger Games fans have come to love.
It is not just the cast that make the The Hunger Games what it is. After all, the imagination and detail that went into the story is arguably just as important as the characters within it. The Capitol and each of the districts have distinctions. The poverty of district 12 is mirrored with the excess and lavishness of the Capitol, where people are known for dying their skin to look beautiful and wearing brightly coloured wigs and make-up. Even Kravitz sports some rather stylish gold guyliner for the part of Cinna. The extravagance of the Capitol is not brushed over. It is given such a massive degree of attention that the audience may find itself as distracted as Katniss does on her arrival. The costumes, the make-up, even the furniture all fit together to form the nation of Panem.
The Hunger Games does what very few adaptations have managed to pull off so succintly. It adapts the source text into a new medium and does so in a way that keeps the essence of the original but develops it into something that would only work on the big screen. While the book is led by Katniss throughout, the film takes the opportunity to explore the rest of Panem, from the sinister President Snow’s rose garden to Seneca Crane’s control room behind the scenes. In one of the most tense moments of the entire film, as each of the 24 tributes stand deathly still on their podiums waiting for the countdown to end, the audience is taken on a whistle-stop tour of Panem, from the families watching at home to Katniss’s best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) sitting alone in the forest. Through these glimpses outside, we see the effect Katniss and the games are having on everyone.
Those concerned that the 12a (PG13 in the US) rating equates to the violence of the book being toned down too much, fear not. The only real gripe I have with the film is that it should not have been a 12a. The powers that be thought that removing nine seconds of blood spatter made it suitable for 12 year olds but I was horrified to see the realism in one scene when one tribute has their neck broken by another in plain sight. It is one thing for the violence to be written about, it is something else entirely seeing it on the big screen. The futuristic feel of the book allowed a degree of detachment from all the atrocities. However, on the big screen and in the arena, it all becomes very real. The violence itself is horrifying when it could so easily have been gratuitous and unnecessary. After all, what is more terrifying than watching a group of children be killed…? Watching them forced to kill each other, that’s what.
With The Hunger Games, Director Gary Ross has done the near impossible with style and grace. He has compiled a team of people on and off the screen who so vehemently wanted to make this the best film it could be. Suzanne Collins’s involvement in the writing process is evident and all in all, the film stays true to the book while being a film in its own right. The film is calm, poignant and utterly heart-wrenching when it could so easily have been overly sentimental and riddled with schmaltz. While many directors might have favoured a massive orchestral piece for the more heartbreaking moments, Ross has wisely gone with subtlety over spectacle. The silent three-fingered salute – a sign of respect in district 12 – and the whistling of a few notes rather than a massive chorus are used far more effectively. The film achieves the perfect balance of emotion and action and allocates just enough time to each section of the story. It never lulls – the pace is intense – but the audience does not feel cheated as no sections are cut too short. Spectacle and character-driven plot blend together seamlessly, complimenting and enhancing but never overshadowing the other.
The Hunger Games is a lesson in how adaptations should be done, how films should be done. An action-packed, heart-wrenching and visually spectacular film that will repeatedly give you hope then break you until you crack.