The bleak future world portrayed in Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games, the first of four films to be adapted from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of novels for young adults, needs little context. The history of how the USA became ‘Panem’ – the story’s oppressive nation state – is very briefly contextualised in a propaganda film shown in the first act, but the history of the world is irrelevant. Here we have a satirical piece which outlines its targets and goes for them head on, and what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in performance and tone.
The story takes a broad but cutting swipe at various elements of modern society, in particular reality television, the cult of celebrity and division of wealth. In Panem there is one gigantic, affluent capital city, in which the so-called cultured elite make their home, while the 12 surrounding districts are impoverished, held in thrall to that bourgeois centre. The annual Hunger Games, in which two ‘tributes’ are randomly selected from each district to participate in a televised gladiatorial conflict, tie the loose civilisation together. The rich bay and caw while the youthful poor are forced to murder each other for their pleasure. This extension of reality TV logic is taken seriously by the film, and thankfully never feels implausible or contrived. In fact, it often rings uncomfortably true.
For the first half of its runtime, which takes in the build-up to the games themselves, the film does a good job of keeping the audience separate from the reality of what these unfortunate combatants have been chosen to do, and in that way we share the protagonists’ journey from paranoid innocence to grim reality, via an understanding of what it means to be appreciated indirectly by a shallow, unthinking crowd. We follow the two tributes from District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who has volunteered to take part in the place of her younger sister, and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). They are guided from the squalor of their everyday lives to the crass extremes of the capital by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and mentored (poorly at first) in the art of survival by former victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson).
Katniss is a stoic, likable heroine, tough but not without emotion, and Jennifer Lawrence plays her well. She never comes across as cold, and we enjoy the rare instances in which we get to see her smile. Her relationship with Peeta is strained by the knowledge that, in the end, the rules of the game decree they cannot both leave the arena alive. The script is perhaps a bit lax in exploring this idea, but it’s established well enough that it lingers in the background.
The inevitability of what is to come is finally unleashed when the games begin, and Gary Ross marshals a genuinely shocking couple of minutes as the film, which has up to this point been a fairly affable spectacle, is swept up in a flurry of violence. All of sudden, the spectators’ grinning faces hover satanically over everything. Ross shoots the action with kinetic editing and fast cutting designed to soften the blow, but crucially it isn’t softened too much, even if it’s a tad incoherent from time to time. The film took minor edits to get its current, more inclusive age ratings, and this was a wise choice. Comparisons have been made to Battle Royale – and they’re not entirely undeserved – but this is a different film, and never feels like a watered down version of anything else.
Ross has treated the source material with respect and given the film a believable look and tone, even when the garish art design of the capital is on full display. Similarly, the musical score, by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard, seeps in and out at just the right times. The supporting cast populate the world effectively, with Stanley Tucci having fun as a spectacularly insincere television presenter, though why Toby Jones was cast as his sidekick, in a role which has about two lines, I’m not sure. But Jennifer Lawrence has to carry the film, and carry it she does, even when the games themselves begin to drag slightly, some dodgy CGI dogs get involved and the romantic subplot doesn’t quite spark.