Review: The Hunger Games

“What is more powerful than fear?” asks Donald Sutherland’s malevolent President of Panem in The Hunger Games. Hope is his answer. A minimal amount is acceptable, and sustainable, he posits. An excessive amount, however, is dangerous. The story of the The Hunger Games occurs in the distant future where North America has transformed into Panem, a land split into districts after a devastating war. This scene, unseen in Suzanne Collins novel, shows the President speaking with the Gamemaker about the true motivation behind a bloody tournament, for which the novel is named, in which twenty-four children (two from each district) are forced to fight to the death in a massive arena until one remains. This piece of motivation, in which the President explains that an ounce of hope is the difference between quelling rebellion and inspiring revolution, is among the central themes in The Hunger Games. The novel is a largely compelling and relevant piece of science fiction, yet the film, though faithful to its source material, is not nearly as effective a piece of storytelling.

To begin, I will say that I admire Suzanne Collins’ novel, but I don’t consider myself an outright fan of The Hunger Games either. It’s a well written, tense tale that has some very intriguing concepts and ideas behind it, but in my opinion, those concepts could have been dealt with more deeply, and I feel as if the narrative took the easy way out of several situations that could have been far more difficult. That being said, I accepted the narrative for what it was, and therefore judged this film less on its narrative strengths and more so on how it interpreted the narrative for the screen. The overall result is a decidedly mixed bag, but the exemplary aspects of the film are at times so well done that they ultimately redeem the film, if only barely.

What stands out the most and remains the most consistent in The Hunger Games is the ensemble. All of the performances support the material and give credence to a film that often needlessly strains to appear “realistic.” At the center is Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, who volunteers to take her younger sister’s place when the latter is initially chosen to be a tribute at the Hunger Games. Completely cognizant of her surroundings at all times, Lawrence gives Katniss an expected toughness and dexterity when out in the wildnerness, yet also imbues her with a tenderness and calm during her quieter, softer moments. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark, who is chosen to join Katniss in the Hunger Games, is also quite solid, placing sincerity and conviction behind his character whose allegiances continue to bewilder Katniss. All of the adult performances are also committed and lively, as Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and even Lenny Kravitz lend their talents to realizing the world of Panem. There are a few moments of performance that fall perilously flat, but on the whole, the ensemble provides a major redeeming factor for this film.

Another bold decision was made on the part of the filmmakers in translating text to celluloid. Instead of remaining with Katniss in a subjective state as the novel prescribes, the film dares to be told through an objective lens, giving the audience a look into the phenomenon of the Hunger Games as a televised event, in addition to adding several other expository scenes which work quite well. Among these is the aforementioned scene with the President and the Gamemaker discussing the meaning of the Games, and others include moments of loved ones reacting to major moments within the tournament. By far the best of these moments comes in the middle of a film, during the heartbreaking death of one character, and when Katniss turns and salutes the cameras, the viewers in a village square salute back. Then, chaos erupts. The father of the fallen child goes berserk and incites a riot where the citizen fight back mercilessly at the surrounding security. The power of the fallen child coupled with the complete breakdown of society is as powerful a scene as I have seen this year. Alas, nothing else in the film comes close to emotional weight that this scene delivers.

The biggest issue with The Hunger Games is that for every creative avenue it follows, it is matched with some roads that simply result in baffling direction and poor execution. For instance, I have no gripes with handheld cinematography, provided that it serves the story. It feels natural within the arena and whenever Katniss prowls through the forests, but outside of those environments, it often feels unmotivated and jarring, as if its only purpose is to creative a sense of “realism” in Panem. Additionally, this film lives in close ups, which are cut at an excessively rapid pace. Yes, maybe the coverage here is extensive, but there is nothing to infer out of editorial which never allows the audience to linger on anything for more than three seconds. Again, given the cutthroat nature of the Games, there are times when this is used to solid effect, especially during a scene in which Katniss begins to hallucinate her surroundings. It works in this case, but rarely is it effective anywhere else. Even in the novel, Collins establishes a sense of geography within the arena to orient the audience, but here, no such attempt is made. That is not to say that there aren’t times when the film finally finds a chance to breathe, for some scenes have nice rhythmic touches and provide nice moments of grace. To the detriment of the film, these scenes are few.

Another issue here is that for every scene that nails the tone and texture of Collins’ prose, other miss the mark completely. Watch when Primrose’s name is called early on and as she comes forward, the camera stays behind her as she tucks in her shirt. Little details like this speak volumes about character, and this is a genuinely well done moment. One of the key subplots of the story, Katniss’ conflicting feelings for Peeta, is largely looked over, and even when the two are onscreen together, the temperature rarely gets above lukewarm. This isn’t necessarily a fault of Lawrence and Hutcherson’s, but simply a lack of attention on account of the filmmakers. The final major gripe of mine about this film is its conclusion, which (despite my opposition to it when reading the novel) comes off as deeply emotional due to the circumstances at the finale of the Games. Here, it just seemed like the film just wanted to wrap everything up as quickly as possible and set up for the sequel, instead of reveling in the drama that both the audience and the characters had endured. Ultimately, The Hunger Games had the potential to be a thought provoking film about the politics of media manipulation and of personal sacrifice for a higher purpose. At times, it lives up to that promise, largely indebted to its ensemble and omniscient point of view, but due to lackluster execution, the narrative’s greater interests become devoured by the sound and the fury.

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~ by romancinema on March 24, 2012.

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