Just before his brutal on-screen death, Cato, one of the so-called Career Tributes, comes to the horrific realisation that he was not the special, skilled fighter he always thought he was. He was simply a well-trained pawn, fighting not only to save his life, but also the honour of his District. It is this appalling self-revelation coming from the most merciless and brutal characters in the film that truly encapsulates the spirit of The Hunger Games – it is not a question of good and evil, it is simply a question of survival in a desolate, harsh world.
The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic, dystopian North America, dubbed Panem, where the government resides in the Capitol. Twelve Districts supply the powerful Capitol with its resources. Using a combination of the somewhat-clichéd introductory scroll, a conversation between two of the supporting characters and an eerie propaganda film-within-the-film, the audience is introduced to the titular Games. The Districts had risen in rebellion against the Capitol, only to have been handed a demoralising defeat. In order to ensure that no further rebellion is ever attempted, the Capitol arranged the Hunger Games, wherein a male and a female Tribute from each District between the ages of 12 and 18 would fight to the death in an arena for its citizens’ amusement. The lone winner would receive a life of peace; the 23 deaths would serve as a chilling reminder to never cross the Capitol again.
This depressingly bleak world is portrayed exquisitely in the film. Director Gary Ross, a debutante in this particular genre, does an exceptional job. His team remains faithful to the book for the most part – much to the pleasure of the series’ fans, no doubt – but makes necessary deviations from the original narrative to help the transition from a first-person book to a third-person film come smoothly. While some may be slightly annoyed with relatively minor aspects of the film such as (a few) changes to the chronology, it still works and crucially makes sense for those members of the audience who have not read Suzanne Collins’ story. Some of the scenes would have worked better had they been played out longer, such as a certain Career’s death and the District 12 Reaping, but the overall pacing is quite balanced; it certainly does not drag on for too long and it is only a handful of scenes that seem rushed.
Of course, no director would achieve any amount of success if his actors were not up to the material. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, as District 12 Tributes Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, bring a tangible gravitas necessary to portray children growing up in a world full of death and oppression. Lawrence is particularly brilliant; subtle when she needs to be, blatantly emotional at other times, she overcomes the challenge of not being able to directly address the audience without missing a beat. The same flawless casting applies for all the supporting roles. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of drunk mentor Haymitch is brilliant, bringing both a sense of humour and an unspoken sadness to his limited screen-time. Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket is arguably the most obliviously entertaining character on screen this year and her understated chemistry with Harrelson is an absolute joy to watch. Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, Toby Jones as Claudius Templesmith and Wes Bentley as Gamesmaker Seneca were cleverly used to draw several back-stories and pieces of information together in the absence of Katniss’ direct narrative voice from the book. Lenny Kravitz (as stylist Cinna) and Donald Sutherland (as President Snow) drew some trepidation from audiences when the trailers were first released but they defied expectations and portrayed their characters very well, if not on par with Harrelson and Banks.
The remaining Tributes, meanwhile, were pitch-perfect. Amandla Stenberg left no dry eye in the house as little Rue. Leven Rambin (Glimmer), Jack Quaid (Marvel), Isabelle Fuhrman (Clove), Dayo Okeniyi (Thresh) and Alexander Ludwig (the afore-mentioned Cato) appear fleetingly, but they are all equally brilliant and deserve the same praise being given to their more experienced cast-mates. In fact, the Tributes were allowed to develop a lot more in the film than they were in the book, to the extent that the more vicious characters drew greater sympathy, making the wanton savagery of the Games all the more bone-chilling. Katniss’ mother and sister Prim (played by Paula Malcomson and Willow Shields respectively) make similarly short but impactful appearances that are scattered throughout the film. The one big waste was making Liam Hemsworth’s Gale Hawthorn nothing more than eye-candy. The younger Hemsworth can definitely act as evidenced in the opening scenes, but his relationship with Katniss was one of the elements that had to be sacrificed for the sake of brevity and cinematic coherence. One can only hope that his presence in the next two films makes up for the lack in the first.
As for the technical aspects, The Hunger Games was largely impressive though there is some room for improvement in the sequels. The costumes and set designs were superb, making the contrast between the opulent Capitol and the dilapidated outer Districts painfully clear. The couture dresses of the Capitol and the costumes worn by the Tributes during the chariot scene and interviews were beautifully-executed, and brought to mind the notion of a futuristic Olympics Opening Ceremony, particularly poignant this year. The desolation of the Districts, on the other hand, is jarringly realistic and successfully brings to mind a poverty-stricken America. The backstage look at the Gamesmakers was a surprisingly effective deviation from the book, made stronger by the limited use of colour in the shots and the believable CGI. The CGI in some of the other shots, particularly the iconic “Girl on Fire” sequence could have been better but did not detriment the film in a major way. A few shots in the night-time Games sequences could also have benefitted from better lighting, but taken as a whole, the cinematography and art direction were very impressive.
The Hunger Games manages to successfully tow the precarious line between being too faithful to the books and being its own piece of art. While there is a general feeling that some of the more visceral elements of the story were held back in order to achieve a lower rating (and more profits), it is still a better adaptation than most recent films including the immensely popular Harry Potter series, which many have tried to compare it to. The biggest problem with The Hunger Games, really, is that Catching Fire and Mockingjay are not going to be released this year.