Review: ‘The Hunger Games’ – Daring to Go Where Other Blockbusters Fear To Tread
Review by UK event staffer Ciara McIntyre. This is pretty spoiler free apart from a mild spoiler in the second paragraph, which you can skip if you’re unsure.
I’ve been here before. I know the conformities of the anticipated PG-13 tentpole. Reading The Hunger Games, I accepted the adaptation problems - immensely dark themes, very few light moments, a female protagonist far removed from girl-next-door who hunts and kills animals without blinking to feed her mother and sister. I knew the deal. The tone couldn’t possibly be as morbid, the action would be amped up to detract from the anguish and heartbreak. I was prepared, I knew the rules, I understood.
So, when the opening scene discussing the games transitioned into the next with a child’s scream of absolute terror and dread in District 12… I stared… he did it! Gary Ross actually did it, he immediately set the tone beautifully and perfectly. This wasn’t action crowd-pleasing entertainment, this was unsettling and abhorrent.
Once in District 12 I felt like I was watching Winter’s Bone Part 2. The acting, the cinematography, the framing of shots, the edits – this really isn’t a blockbuster, this is an indie straight out of Sundance. I know it’s hardly the first time hand held cameras have been part of cinema’s mainstream. But it felt smaller, more intimate - it felt real. And as Jennifer Lawrence walked out the door, hunting boots on and replied to a certain character’s hiss of contempt. Ha! It’s Katniss, perfect Katniss. And the hits kept coming, I was so surprised by Liam Hemsworth, he was a great Gale. Shock and overwhelming relief began to surge through me.
I had glumly accepted that they would shy away from the political terror and the bleak tone due to the need for a wide audience. But not for a second had Ross done this. He took the lead of Suzanne Collins and refused to be patronizing to the young audience. The oppressive, brutal world of Panem was present in every single frame. I soon realised I must be the only person in the screening grinning from ear to ear as children’s fingers were pricked to produce bloody indentifying fingerprints and thrust into the Reaping. (I quickly rearranged my face before people thought I was a sadistic nutjob and was asked to leave the theatre.)
Performance wise, EVERYONE was on their A game. Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland and Wes Bentley all seem to be having their own Hunger Games for top position of ‘Best Scene Stealer’. Very surprising is just how good the tributes are. During the training scenes you get to see each of their strengths, what attributes each of them will bring to the games and what bonds they’ve made before the carnage. The Careers were indeed scary, blood-thirsty and carried a great deal of threat. They were all wonderful. Alexander Ludwig and Isabelle Fuhrman have particularly good show-downs (you do start to question their sanity). Amandla Stenburg is completely adorable as Rue. Funny, cunning and mischievous, you’ll find yourself rooting for her right from the off.
You’ve heard it a thousand times and you don’t need me to repeat it, but yes, Jennifer Lawrence was wonderful and the film wouldn’t have been half as good without her shoulders bearing the weight. All the hype you’ve heard about her is entirely justified and then some. Same goes for Josh Hutcherson whose likeable, strong-willed personality off camera let’s him skim through scenes as Peeta with relative ease. He IS Peeta Mellark. The chemistry between the two is indeed different to what we’ve seen before which has already raised a few critic eyebrows. It’s there and then it isn’t. It is bipolar. But fear not, anyone who knows the book well, knows exactly Katniss’ thought process at that moment. You’ll see every consideration, every doubt, every moment of wantonness and every wish to abandon in Jennifer’s eyes. It doesn’t need to be voiced because, against all odds, they managed to cast an actress of such incredible talent that she embodies Katniss heart and soul; she can give you a sense of Collins’ prose in just one look. And Josh, well just like Peeta, he’s steady and firmly constant.
The action and thrills come thick and fast and the entire movie has a very fast pace. Believe me - it is worth your ticket price alone to see the beginning of the Games in the scene at the Cornucopia. Speaking as a UK viewer, I presume the premiere in London showed the version digitally altered by 7 seconds. Don’t worry, there’s most definitely enough action to pound home the brutality (and emotion) of the Games. Which bring me to sing the praises again and again of editors Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling. How they managed to make you feel the impact of every hit and make you think you’ve seen more carnage than you have is completely beyond me! It’s such an accomplishment, the Games themselves haven’t been watered down. And the piece of music during this scene really sends the message home. How can this be the Capitol’s last word in entertainment?
Which bring us to the main focus of The Hunger Games. The theme Gary Ross has concentrated on most is the oppressive force of President Snow, entertainment in others’ misery (or their ‘hope’) and the eventual revolution. And he does it beautifully. The Gamemakers orchestrate horrors without thinking, working hard to make them the most climatic games ever. Moving from Katniss’ struggles to Seneca Crane and the Gamemakers’ room is carried out with perfect pacing. One incredible scene between Snow and Seneca manages to sum up not only the reasoning of the Games but sums up the entire series and it fits seamlessly with Catching Fire. You really get a sense of the mastery of Gary Ross’ writing talent to explain everything in just a few concise sentences. And his decision to not just allude to the unease in the districts but to be cinematic and show us was very welcome. In fact a great deal of the end of The Hunger Games will match in extremely well with Catching Fire which isn’t to say this is an obvious franchise starter. This first film stands well on its own.
Ok, so it isn’t without its flaws. The Hunger Games isn’t perfect. At the moment I’m trying to warm to what feels like excessive overkill with the hand-held docu style (and maybe when I finally get to see it again next weekend I’ll make my peace with it) It does give you a visceral, immediate sense but every once in a while you find yourself wishing you could have just another few seconds to focus on a situation or on that character’s reaction with a steadier shot. Some little moments in the cave scene almost bordered on making me wince in embarrassment. Almost! I never did but the urge was there which I imagine will disappear on second viewing. The ending did feel a little bit rushed. But really these are minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things (you should have seen my list of things that didn’t quite work for me in Harry Potter that I’ve had 10 years to try to relax about). I think I’d have to agree with Kimmy. On first impressions, it’s the happiest I’ve been with an adaptation.
Gary Ross doesn’t give us the answers of a character’s motives or what you should be feeling. He demands audiences’ analytical participation. It’s thought provoking and stands head and shoulders above other ‘teen’ films. It’s brave, it’s intelligent, it never states the obvious through lazy exposition to reiterate a point again and again. It’s all there, subtly presented on screen for us to infer and interpret. Ross and Collins give young people more credit than other mainstream filmmakers would. And I’m betting they’re going to relish the challenge.