Author Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is a blistering insight into a believable modern dystopian society, and the excitement that comes from portraying much-loved books on to the big screen has been building palpably since last year.
The movie is set in post-apocalyptic America many years after an unsuccessful peasant uprising against an evil 1984-style government known as The Capitol. The Capitol will never tolerate the insubordination of its people again, so to this end, it stages the annual Hunger Games. Each year two teenage ‘volunteers’ (who are actually chosen from a mandatory ballot, known as the ‘reaping’) are taken from their respective poverty-stricken districts to fight to the death in an ultra-demonic Big Brother television spectacle.
This year the audience follows Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) story. Determined not to let baby sister Primrose compete in the Games, when Primrose's name is called Katniss takes her place. Katniss and the male ‘Tribute’ Peeta are rushed by Elisabeth Banks' character (she’s called Effie Trinket, but you wouldn’t know from the way the film glosses over unimportant things like character biographies) to the bright lights of the Capitol.
Introduced to a design team lead by Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna and mentored by alcoholic former Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) the tributes know that once all 24 children enter the game arena only one can leave it alive.
The script was pretty true to the source material and the characterisation in Hunger Games is magnificent. Jennifer Lawrence does wonderful justice to her tough-as-nails huntress, as possibly the only choice for Katniss. Her Amazonian with the heart of a soldier is nicely contrasted with Josh Hutcherson’s tender Peeta. Harrelson’s Haymitch is an absolute delight but his function seems to be to shoe-horn in a little too much levity into his scenes, whereas Liam Hemsworth has little to work with as Katniss’ possible district boyfriend Gale. And it is so good to have Wes Bentley (as gamemaker Seneca Crane) back on screen!
The special effects are understandably tremendous, and so they should be, given that there were an indulgent 60 individual prop-makers recognised in the closing credits. Sound is also heavily utilised, with the silence that works abominably in the opening scenes improved by director Gary Ross as he later remembers to use music to make his point once the tributes enter the ring.
In short, it’s rather easy to become caught up in the bluster of a breathtaking blockbuster, making plot clarity The Hunger Games’ real sacrificial lamb.
That palpable excitement that plagued cinemagoers never once morphs on screen into palpable fear – as is the case when a book that deals with adult issues is turned into a more commercially-friendly film. There simply wasn’t sufficient bloodshed. Not once was the population’s venom towards an autocratic government or the reality of children murdering other children in cold blood adequately demonstrated. To paraphrase the motto of the Hunger Games, the odds always seemed ‘ever in our protagonists’ favour’.
The Hunger Games is a wonderful, thrilling spectacle which will engage fans of the book and action blockbusters alike. Yet the lack of fleshing out leads to an audience bordering on desensitised. When a movie that is supposed to hold a mirror up to both media and government voyeuristic intrusion can’t quite convey the message, something is off.
Let’s hope the big-budget adaptations of the remaining two books won’t be too far behind, so I can understand whether we are watching The Hunger Games, or, more worryingly, participating in them...