It’s not often that I’m so keen to see a movie or, for that matter, so anxious. The reason for both in this instance is simple – I adore Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games (and its two sequels even more). While I was extremely excited at the prospect of seeing it brought to cinematic life on the big screen, I was equally nervous that I would not like it. That it would not match my own vision, however faulty and personalised, of Panem and, more to the point, Katniss Everdeen. There aren’t words to describe how relieved I am and how convinced I am by Jennifer Lawrence’s powerful performance – in the future, when I re-read the three novels, it will be Jennifer Lawrence I see. Not that that will be difficult because she is so close to the Katniss that I envisaged. With Katniss in place, how could I not enjoy The Hunger Games?
The Hunger Games is set in the future at a time when what is left of the United States has been turned into Panem, a police state divided into twelve Departments, with ever increasing poverty and hardship as their distance from the Capitol grows. At one time there was a Department 13 but 75 years before the novel begins there was rebellion and war which resulted in the annihilation of this furthest region. The state continues to remind its citizens of this time – and punish them -by holding an annual Hunger Games. Each department is forced to choose one boy and one girl to enter an elaborate arena and fight to the death. Only one can survive. But this is also a reality show, with every moment screened, and so what is torment for the Departments is sedation and entertainment for the pampered, painted and preened inhabitants of the Capitol.
When the child Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is picked as ‘tribute’ for Department 12, her elder sister Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Games. Alongside her is Peeta, a boy who once saved her from starvation. Katniss enters the Capitol and the extravagant horror of it all, leaving behind Prim, her damaged mother and her closest friend, the boy she hunts with, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). After some days in the Capitol being cleaned up and played with, the Games begin – and all hell breaks loose.
Not everyone who sees the film will have read the book and, no doubt, it is a different experience if you’re not aware of what is to come. Nevertheless, both experiences are equally valid thanks to director Gary Ross who does a fine job of replicating the spirit of the novel, bringing it to life on the screen. The poverty and drudgery of life in the ghetto of Department 12, the ridiculous extravagance of the Capitol and, above all, the terror of Katniss, Peeta and the other competitors and the absolute horror of what these youngsters are being compelled to do – they’re all here. Katniss shakes with fear before entering the games, the camera itself shakes at the violence (no doubt as a means to comply with the 12A certificate but it also works on other levels). There might not be the bloodshed and mutilation of the novel but the fear and the awfulness of it all are conveyed extremely effectively.
As mentioned, Jennifer Lawrence is superb as Katniss, holding the film around her. There aren’t too many films in which a young woman is centre stage throughout, especially a young woman who is as inspirational a heroine as Katniss. And next to her is Peeta played by Josh Hutcherson. Here are two young people, almost strangers, forced together with the very real prospect that they will have to kill the other. Watched by cameras day and night, and playing for rewards from sponsors, they have to give the audience what they want and, in their case, it’s starcrossed lovers. So, are they in love or aren’t they? Both young actors convey this ambivalence very well. Josh Hutcherson also does an excellent job of interpreting Peeta’s quiet strength and confusion.
President Coriolanus Snow (one of the many Roman names in the film) has more of a role here than he does in the first novel but that is probably to prepare us for his part in the later films. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable actor than Donald Sutherland for this man that Katniss describes in the novel as smelling of roses and blood. Other stand outs include Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ ‘designer’ Cinna, Elizabeth Banks as the doll-like Effie and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, a previous winner of the Games from Department 12 and so the mentor of Katniss and Peeta. This is not an easy role. Something has turned this man into a drunken sot of a slob and our feelings to him throughout the novels (as are Katniss’) are problematic, but Harrelson breathes life into a character who could have been more caricature in the wrong hands. There are moments that stand out too, not least the chariot ride into the arena, but there are others and you’ll recognise them when you see the film.
The next film, Catching Fire, is due in the theatres towards the end of 2013. Knowing what is in store makes the wait almost unbearable but having seen The Hunger Games I know now not to be anxious. That the trilogy is in safe hands.
If you haven’t read the books and if you enjoyed the film, do read all three before the release of Catching Fire. I think it’ll be worth it.