The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of the best selling young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, has been shrouded in secrecy. Little was revealed about the film leading up to its release and critics were even asked to sign non-disclosure agreements before watching the film, meaning if they broke the embargo set by the studio, they could be punished in court. It’s a little extreme to be sure, especially since it isn’t anything particularly special. It’s a good film, but the hype it has garnered is a bit much, though if audience reaction at my screening is any indication, it will be a huge hit.
The film is set in a dystopian sci-fi future where every year, 24 kids from the ages of 12 to 18 are thrown together in an arena to battle to the death, one girl and one boy from each of the 12 districts. In District 12 lives Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman who has been forced to act as the head of the household. Ever since her father died, her mother has been useless and she has had to take care of her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Well, Primrose has just hit the age of 12 and for the first time ever is eligible for what they call The Hunger Games. As fortune (or misfortune) would have it, Primrose is selected, but before she is taken off, Katniss volunteers herself in Primrose’s place. So along with the selected male in her district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she heads off to compete, knowing full well she may be approaching her final days.
For film buffs who are familiar with Kinji Fukasaku’s masterful Battle Royale (which is also, coincidentally, based on a book), The Hunger Games is going to seem mighty familiar. The premise is more or less the same—kids are thrown in a remote area and must fight to the death until only one remains—but tonally, they are quite different. The Hunger Games injects more drama and heart into its runtime than Battle Royale, though that doesn’t necessarily make it superior. For what both are trying to accomplish, Battle Royale does a better job.
The Hunger Games’ greatest strength is its individual moments. It competently builds the characters to the point where you care about them not just because they’re too young to die, but also because of their motivations, selfless actions and realistic emotions. Katniss, for instance, is obviously fearful for her life, but doesn’t want to kill anybody, though she knows she’ll have to. When she runs into Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl of only 12 or 13, she befriends her only to watch her die shortly after. It’s a powerful scene and both actors sell it well. There are more instances like this too, but the problem is that these individual moments don’t ripple throughout the entire movie. After Rue’s passing, she’s never mentioned again and the trauma of such an event is never truly felt in Katniss’ behavior or actions. The respectable and affecting drama is too often traded for cheap thrills, like a late chase through the woods by a pack of wild beasts.
At its core, though, The Hunger Games is a commentary on society, on our bloodlust and our fascination with watching people destroy themselves via reality television. This is where the film works best, even if the ideas have already been explored more successfully in the ahead-of-its-time action film, The Running Man or, in a more dramatic sense, The Truman Show. With our idolization of people like Charlie Sheen, our fascination with shows like Celebrity Rehab and even our obsession with bloody, violent sports like boxing and mixed martial arts, it’s hard not to feel like we’re heading in the direction of pitting people against each other to the death for entertainment. The fact that the film is rated PG-13 is only another indication of our downhill slide because it doesn’t shy away from its brutal violence. Kids are hacked up with machetes, shot with arrows and punctured by spears. Showing blood used to be enough to garner an R rating, but blood splashes up through the screen here while little children are shown dead or dying. While I hesitate to call the violence overly gratuitous (this is no Saw film, after all), the sheer amount of it is startling given its rating, yet it works in favor of the film’s commentary.
Given its grim set-up that all children must die but one, which should lead to conflicting emotions and, ultimately, rich drama, a late movie twist feels a little bit like a cop out; if not a cop out (since they did, in all fairness, set this turn of events up fairly early), then a missed dramatic opportunity. This miss is indicative of the film as a whole. The set-ups aren’t followed through on and the dramatic repercussions of experiencing such a terrible circumstance are left unexplored. Still, those aforementioned individual scenes pack a punch, even if the movie as a whole doesn’t.
The Hunger Games receives 3.5/5