Based on a massively popular series of young adult novels that centre on the trials and tribulations of a teenage heroine, The Hunger Games has been lined up as the franchise to replace Twilight as the all-conquering tween juggernaut winds down this year. However, those who recoil at the slightest mention of Team Jacob or dry-heave at the sight of Edward getting all glittery don’t be afraid; the source material is where the similarities end. Make no mistake, The Hunger Games is no Twilight.
In fact, The Hunger Games shares more DNA with more illustrious company like The Running Man, The Lord of the Flies and, perhaps most obviously, Battle Royale. Set in a dystopian future, the uber-rich Capitol rules over the 12 districts of Panem (a post –apocalyptic US). In order to keep the poor down and maintain civil order, the Capitol arranges a yearly Hunger Games ‘pageant’, compiling two randomly selected teenagers from each district and sending them out into the wild to fight to the death, all being broadcast live on TV.
Gary Ross’ film is engaging right from the off with its bold opening scenes introducing us to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old who, after her father’s death and her mother’s depression, is tasked with holding the home together and raising baby sister Prim (Willow Shield). When little Prim is drawn from the hat to be District 12’s ‘Tribute’ for the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss has no choice but to volunteer to take her place. It’s a grim, gut-punch of an opening that immediately lets you know that this is no ordinary tween-bate.
In stark contrast to the gritty, washed out palette of the opening scenes comes the Capitol, a brightly coloured futuristic metropolis with bizarre attire that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tim Burton film. Katniss arrives there with fellow D12 Tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and begins training under the watchful eye of their mentor, and former Hunger Games winner, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson).
Perhaps the biggest fear that fans of the book and the film’s many doubters is that the violence and the central plot of kids-killing-kids will be toned down and sanitised to cater to the PG13 audience. As soon as the games themselves kick off, those fears should be allayed. Don’t go in expecting Battle Royale levels of blood and gore, but Ross gets across the violence and the horror of teenagers murdering each other with the gravity it deserves.
Avoiding many of the pitfalls of adapting such a popular novel, Ross has succeeded in creating a film that brings across the characters and the central themes of the book but still making a movie that stands on it’s own and doesn’t feel like a slavish exercise in adaptation. With a slightly bloated running time that slows down dramatically in a couple of areas and some plot points that may confusing to the uninitiated, Ross’ film isn’t perfect but there’s enough on show here to please everyone.
Chief amongst the film’s many assets is Jennifer Lawrence, who brings the same steely determination to Katniss as she did to her Oscar-nommed role in Winter’s Bone. There’s a lot of heavy lifting for Lawrence to do here but she copes with it perfectly. Whether stoical or tearful, cooking a squirrel or leading a revolution, Lawrence shines immensely.
Though Katniss and Peeta’s relationship develops throughout the film and threatens to become a love triangle in the sequels (with Liam Hemsworth’s Gale, left back in district 12), that isn’t as big a factor here as much as the social commentary covering class confilict, government rule and the power of the media all wrapped into an engrossing sci fi tale that packs in empathy and humanity while refusing to patronise it’s target audience. All that, plus a heroine who’ll leave you asking, “Bella who?”