Based on the series of bestselling books, The Hunger Games features an unusually grim and violent premise considering its young target audience. Does the film work?…
Calling a movie “better than expected” can be a little misleading. That’s kind of damning it with faint praise.
Expectations are what the viewer brings into the viewing, and has got nothing to do with the actual quality of the film itself. Yet, that’s exactly how I felt about “The Hunger Games”. In this case, my expectations were coloured by a slight disdain for the source material. Author Suzanne Collins claims she came up with the idea for a deathmatch tournament set in a dystopian future while channel surfing the news. What seems more likely — to me anyway — is that she liberally borrowed ideas from much more original works like Japan’s “Battle Royale” and “The Running Man” (itself an adaptation of a Stephen King novel).
What I will give her full credit for is a keen observation about the culture of pseudo-celebrity worship and the manipulation of “truth” in reality shows like “American Idol” and “Survivor”. She uses that as a jumping-off point for a commentary on the class system, how the have-nots are tools for the amusement of the have-it-alls, who insidiously use the Games as a means of societal control. All good sci-fi holds up a mirror to the human condition for a long, hard look. Collins does a pretty good job of making “The Hunger Games” highly reflective of contemporary society. The manipulation of mass media is more prevalent today than ever before, and is a powerful method of keeping public dissent in check. Just look at how Malaysia has been run for the last few decades. But I digress.
This is the most compelling element of her books, and the one i responded to the most in director Gary Ross’ adaptation. In fact, I am a little surprised how such a thought-provoking message got through the conservative Hollywood studio system and into a movie aimed squarely at teens. On the surface it’s already subversive enough, what with the premise of youngsters being forced to kill each other for sport and entertainment. So, my ‘better than expected’ reaction is less about the viewing experience and more about the depth of the content. Well, it’s neither deeply intellectual nor mind-blowingly philosophical, but it sure has a lot more smarts than say, “Twilight”, Percy Jackson, or even Harry Potter.
Though I got a lot out of it, your personal mileage of the film’s themes may vary, because as a viewing experience it’s a bit messy. For one, the cinematography is straight out of the Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) school of shaky cam, and at times the seemingly Parkinson’s-afflicted camerawork gets so distracting it is hard to focus on what’s going on. Conversely, the action in this movie (what little there is of it) is strangely subdued. It’s almost as if Ross wasn’t terribly interested in the Games portion of the story. And the production design is a bit uninspired, at times giving off a cheap TV movie feel. Even the intentionally cartoon-level extravagant costumes of the rich Capitol residents look somewhat safe. Imagine what someone like Jean Paul Gaultier could’ve done with it.
Heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) also comes across as way too much of a reluctant player, with many of her predicaments ending up being solved for her by some deus ex machina plot contrivance (Oh look, a convenient hornet’s nest right in the very tree I’m stuck in, so I can use it to defeat my enemies waiting below!), or another character coming to her rescue. It that sense, it reminded me of Harry Potter. I’ll put this down to the weakness of the source material rather than the filmmaking, although it would’ve been good if they’d rewritten these aspects.
Happily (for fans and casual viewers) the one aspect I thought would trip up the story actually turned out to be quite engaging: the romance stuff. Here, her blossoming affair with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is cleverly worked in as a survival tactic for Katniss to endear herself to the watching public, much to the dismay of her love interest back home, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). It works. I’d put this down to the performances. Lawrence is an accomplished actress, bringing that same Academy Award-nominated intensity from “Winter’s Bone” to this role. On paper, Katniss could come across as a bit mopey, but Lawrence gives it a sympathetic touch with just a hint of vulnerability. While Hutcherson and Hemsworth are mostly there to give the girls some eye candy to swoon over, they do make the roles their own. I liked these guys and that’s saying a lot. Ultimately, the best showings come from the supporting cast, with Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz making a lasting impression with their limited screen time. I wouldn’t mind seeing a spin-off featuring just their characters.
The sci-fi geek in me dug the holographic perils created by the Games organisers to effect certain outcomes. Some viewers may be wondering how they can physically harm the contestants, but it’s really not all that unbelievable a concept if you’re used to the holodecks seen in “Star Trek”. What’s nice about the overt sci-fi elements in the film is that they’re used sparingly, and in stark contrast to the distinctly low-tech atmosphere of the world portrayed on screen. It helps elevate the film slightly above that made-for-TV feel I was referring to. Just about.
The film has a number of flaws and occasionally betrays its derivative roots. In spite of this, overall it still does manage to tell an interesting story without feeling draggy throughout its 2.5-hour runtime. The best thing I can say about “The Hunger Games” is that it does well in setting up a world I want to see more of. And since Collins has 2 more books, we’ll get ample opportunity to revisit this world. I’m already looking forward to Part 2, and with the predictably massive Box Office it’s sure to enjoy, that will happen soon enough.
Next time however, I expect Ross and his creative team to really raise their game. And it will have everything to do with the actual quality of the film.
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