I must be one of the few people in the world who haven’t read The Hunger Games, the first in a series of novels aimed at teenagers about teenagers. Except the world author Suzanne Collins has created isn’t full of ordinary teen problems such as who fancies who (although there is a bit of that) and when essay deadlines are. These teens have to fight each other to the death.
The story is reminiscent of Japanese movie Battle Royal, although it endeavours to create more of a dystopian world around the bloodbath. It’s set in North America, where the population is under totalitarian control. People are separated up into districts, and each district has to volunteer a girl and a boy each year to take part in a national televised contest: ‘The Hunger Games’. It’s an extreme reality show where all the participants are put in a forest and use weapons to slaughter each other. The last one standing wins their freedom and instant celebrity status.
The film is told, as is the book, from the point of view of a 16-year-old contestant, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). She volunteers to take part in place of her younger sister. The boy chosen from her district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), seems to have a crush on her, but Katniss only has eyes for hunky best-friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). But after a teary goodbye to him and her family, she is whisked off to the ‘Capitol’ where she begins her training for the games.
The start of the picture, where we see Katniss and the people of District 12, a mining town, living in grey, dusty poverty, is brought to life brilliantly. The camera throws us completely into their way of life, using fast handheld shooting. The frame does linger on small details, however, such as snatches of wildlife amongst all the grey, and the detail of Katniss’s bow as she illegally hunts deer in the nearby woods. Some of the styles used here are more akin to the work of Andrea Arnold than your usual teen franchise movie.
When the action switches to the Capitol, everything gets a little more shiny and cartoony. This is deliberate, and the big CGI buildings and colourful costumes of the city’s inhabitants emphasise the difference between the poorer districts and those with money and power. In the midst of the Games, however, when our heroine is fighting for her life, the style switches back to gritty cinéma vérité.
The Hunger Games isn’t a perfect film, but there are things about it that make it a good, strong blockbuster. Although over two hours, it keeps the pace up, but doesn’t forget to add emotion, heart and warmth to the story amongst the violence. Suspense is cranked up to extremely high levels at times, and I think many viewers will find their nails digging deep into their hands during some of the more intense sequences.
The film is most chilling when it’s satirising modern life’s obsession with reality stars. One of the best moments of dialogue in the film occurs when an eccentric TV chat-show host (Stanley Tucci) asks Katniss about her younger sister, and how she stepped in to save her from having to take part. The scene echoes all those contrived instances we regularly see when talent show hosts or judges goad contestants to spill sob-stories on camera.
Of the performances, our leading lady, the brilliant Jennifer Lawrence, stands out as the best. This is high praise, as she is surrounded by a cluster of superb supporting actors including Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Toby Jones, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Sutherland. Her fellow games contender Hutcherson is also rather good, although he is eclipsed by rival love interest Liam Hemsworth, one of the most charismatic young men working in cinema today.
The film opened to the third-highest box office opening in cinema history. I find this very positive and reassuring. It’s good to see young teenagers interested in stories that are as challenging, complex and rewarding as this one. Some parts may be a bit grim for younger viewers, but people of 12 and over should find it magnificently compelling.
It doesn’t have the depth of Harry Potter, but it’s got more teeth than Twilight. The Hunger Games is going to be one of the biggest successes of the year, and it deserves to be. It isn’t wholly original, but it’s more interesting and better made than many films aimed at the young adult demographic. And you won’t forget some of its scenes in a hurry.
The Hunger Games (2012), directed by Gary Ross, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate, Certificate 12A.