Katniss Everdeen, fiery heroine of Suzanne Collins’ teenage literary phenomenon The Hunger Games, has little time for the mopey antics seen in the Twilight movies. In the new film adaptation of the first novel in the series, Katniss is played by the terrific Jennifer Lawrence, and the last thing on her mind is namby pamby attention from a pasty-faced suitor. Instead, her concerns veer towards self-preservation, and at the outset of The Hunger Games, we find out why.
In the future, North America has been transformed into a dystopian society known as Panem. The country is now divided into 12 districts, ruled over by a reigning Capitol. Each year, a boy and girl are selected from each district to participate in the annual Hunger Games: a televised fight to the death broadcast across the whole country.
When Katniss’ young sister is picked for the games, she volunteers to take her place as Tribute, and is transported to the Capitol along with male counterpart Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Both Katniss and Peeta are groomed and tooled by Woody Harrelson’s alcoholic former champion and Lenny Kravitz’ stylist, both of whom emphasise the importance of securing audience approval (overtones of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator). Training; PR; establishing sponsors -it’s all part of the build-up before the games themselves.
Behind the camera, director Gary Ross matches his heroine’s beady-eyed intensity. Barrelling through the set-up, Ross nevertheless keeps his eye on the prize, working with Clint Eastwood’s regular cinematographer Tom Stern in deftly establishing an intriguing heroine and a fascinating sci-fi landscape. Collins herself worked on the screenplay, so it’s little wonder the film maintains such a ruthless sense of focus. Although wider context is kept to a bare minimum, the film’s smart visual design becomes apparent early on, as spaceships soar above the deprived, rural squalor of District 12, and the garish fright wig of Tribute escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) contrasts with the washed out inhabitants being sent up as lambs to the slaughter.
Ross keeps the focus claustrophobic and pared down, so by and large we only see what Katniss sees. Glimpses of the decadent Capitol, a place seemingly infested with Boy George look-a-likes, come and go in a flash, so closely identified are we with the heroine’s point of view. It’s a heavy burden to place on Lawrence’s shoulders but the soulful actress carries it off with aplomb, conveying the manifold complexities of her character. Katniss is no vapid bimbo but an ordinary girl placed in an extraordinary situation through a selfless act of love. And so dreadful is the approaching crisis that she remains entirely sympathetic, even in moments of rage.
The decision to keep the drama intimate with only fleeting glimpses at the world surrounding the characters might be frustrating for many but the movie is rich in irony. The satirical jabs at reality TV (best represented by Stanley Tucci’s disingenuous TV host, Caesar Flickerman) carry real bite: a nightmarish, darkly comic reflection of the trash readily foisted on audiences.
But it also acts as a voyeuristic commentary on how we consume drama in real life. Within the film, the games exploit the fictional audience’s need for heroes, villains and romantic arcs, a self-reflexive comment on our desire for the same. During the final, violent showdown, we attempt to impose that same logic on the world of the fiction, aligning our sympathies with Katniss and our hatred with the ruthless Career Tributes (trained for the games since birth). We also anticipate the unflowering of the Katniss-Peeta relationship, although the lovey-dovey stuff is nicely understated.
However, the film never labours the subtext -it’s simply there for those who wish to see it. In truth, the movie can be enjoyed on many different levels. On the surface, it’s a visceral, doom-laden, futuristic thriller, given over to ferocious, although mostly implied, violence in the second half (compromised slightly by its 12A certificate but still unsuitable for young children). Yet there’s real satirical intelligence underpinning the gritty thrills, keen performances and sharp direction -brains behind the brawn that one might not expect given the ‘teenybopper’ stigma associated with the source material.
Well knickers to that last statement. The Hunger Games is a massively accomplished, exciting achievement with major appeal for both younger and older audiences. It’s successful as a character study, action movie and satirical morality play, one which cribs bits and pieces from a multitude of sources (Battle Royale; The Truman Show; Winter’s Bone; Nineteen Eighty Four) but which manages to put a fresh spin on familiar cliches. Mercifully, the film never falls into exploitation: although gripping, we are always made to feel the awful consequences of violence, which ensures there’s some moral backbone to go with the popcorn.
It’s certainly not perfect -many secondary characters, including Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’ potential romantic interest back in District 12 and Wes Bentley’s Gamemaker Seneca Crane -are under-developed. As with so many blockbusters nowadays, there’s a sense that this is a direct result of franchise expectations, as the chess pieces are moved into place in preparation for the next entry. However, in stark contrast to the recent John Carter, which lay there on the screen like a boring, $250 million omelette, The Hunger Games is a delicious appetiser that leaves audiences ravenous for more.