Movie Review: The Hunger Games

Yes, the wait is finally over. Whether or not you are a fan of Suzanne Collins’ insanely popular teen novel trilogy, you can now check out the “next Harry Potter/next Twilight” phenomenon in cinemas (it came out on Thursday and I’ve already seen it twice). I suggest you do, lest you become bitter from the hype and turn into a hater.

This could be a long one…

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Starring:
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Director:
Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Big)
Rating: M
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the-hunger-games-posterI do not read novels. Like, ever. Snails move faster than my eyes across a page and so I generally find my leisure time better spent with other forms of entertainment media. So when my brother recommended I read Suzanne Collins‘ post-apocalyptic thriller The Hunger Games in January of 2010, it was only out of desperate boredom that I complied. I was hooked within minutes on its insanely fast-paced first person narrative style and over the next several months I made my way through the entire trilogy. Little did I know that I had stumbled upon what would soon be hailed as “the next big thing” in book-to-film translation.

Yeah, I liked it while it was underground. What of it?

Fast-forward two years and after months of anticipation, I found myself before a screen watching what was once confined to my imagination take shape as a shining example of how to do justice to literary source material while creating a unique identity as a film. There is nothing in the world that quite feels the same as the relief of justified hype.

For those who do not yet know the basic idea behind the story, The Hunger Games follows an imbalanced society where twelve poor “Districts” serve a super-city known as the Capitol. To keep their underlings in check, the head honchos force two teenagers from every district to take part in an annual fight to the death in an artificial arena as part of a twisted reality television broadcast. Yeah, it’s fairly heavy stuff.

The biggest question that director Gary Ross had to answer when making The Hunger Games was how to capture the tense and ultimately horrific tone of the very violent original story while avoiding an adult rating, which would isolate much of his potential audience. Thankfully he manages to alleviate the concerns of the fans who were quite literally baying for blood by employing some rapid editing alongside a liberal use of shaky-cam. The latter will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea and it occasionally appears where it isn’t needed, but it’s hard to argue with why it was necessary when the results are as impressive as they are in the first chaotic corpse-making sequence that kicks off the Games.

The film takes just over an hour to get to this sequence, which may irritate some fans as the pre-arena segments of the novel take up less than a quarter of its thickness. Yet as a movie, the extended exposition works wonders for establishing characterisation and allowing the impeccably cast actors to shine. The likes of Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and even Lenny Kravitz all nail their respective parts, fitting right in with Collins‘ visions for them.

Yet it is Jennifer Lawrence as District 12 protagonist Katniss Everdeen who shines the brightest among them, as she needed to given the amount of screen time demanded of a lead actor in an entirely first person novel adaptation. She sells all the nuances of Everdeen’s inner thoughts and feelings that are so important to the flow of the book and so difficult to relay via a script. Josh Hutcherson isn’t bad himself as the outgunned male “tribute” from 12. Harry Potter and Twilight did not start their celluloid sagas with this kind of performance quality across the board.

The film takes some departures from its source material, as should be expected of such a project. Smaller plot details like how Katniss gets her Mockingjay pin are tweaked to streamline the story, while the odd extra scene from outside the Games is added in after they start for the sake of keeping the audience informed when Katniss has no need to speak. A fair few of these involve Donald Sutherland as the evil President Snow because, hey, if you had him in your movie, why wouldn’t you? Yet the best new sequence has to be a well-timed look at one of the districts’ reactions to an important death, which certainly caught me off guard with its emotional impact. Such additions represent inventive ways to keep the sombre tone of Collins‘ trilogy at the forefront of the film.

The careful application of music throughout proceedings aids greatly in keeping the mood tense, ratcheting up the pressure felt by the audience whenever the moment calls for it. The score certainly does a fine job maintaining the intensity, but it is the remarkable absence of music at certain key moments during the story that truly excels when it comes to crafting a nail-biting atmosphere. I was literally on the edge of my seat more than once while watching.

It is unfortunate that despite The Hunger Games many strengths, its final five minutes or so feel a little rushed. Given the extended build-up to the start of the Games it surely would not have been too difficult to grant the crucial aftermath a few extra moments for the sake of clarity. The themes and ideas that form the foundation of the second and third novels are largely glossed over, which is a shame, though at least they aren’t completely absent.

Overall The Hunger Games is a great literary adaptation and a sterling movie on its own, thanks to the enduring appeal of its narrative (Collins herself was one third of the screenplay team). Quality-wise it is arguably the most deserving mega-saga launcher since Peter Jackson‘s The Fellowship of the Ring. See it.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Well acted, holds tension throughout, faithful to the novel’s tone and themes, some brilliant individual sequences
Bad:
Ineffective ending feels rushed
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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