The Hunger Games (DVD/Blu-Ray) — Dir. Gary Ross. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth.
The film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young adult novel makes teenage violence fun again.
The Hunger Games is not a cheerful story. In a post-apocalyptic future, an oppressive government punishes its citizens for their past rebellion by requiring each district to submit two teenagers each year into a multi-day deathmatch known as The Hunger Games. Our heroes, the tributes chosen from the backwoods District 12 for the 74th Annual Hunger Games, are Katniss Everdeen (the main character and narrator of the book, played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).
The Hunger Games does not revel in horror or bloodshed, and yet its premise requires the violent deaths of more teenagers than your average slasher movie. Some very careful framing of these images lets this youth-targeted film narrowly — and somewhat miraculously — avoid an ‘R’ rating. Those ratings must be saved, of course, for the innocence-ravaging phonemes of dirty, nasty films like The King’s Speech.
Using a screenplay adapted by Collins herself, the movie keeps to the events of the book with unusual precision — even the parts that don’t make very much sense (like a certain arbitrary rule change near the story’s end). It has good reason to stay true; Collins’ novel maintains exceptionally tight pacing and rises to dramatic crescendos with clockwork rhythm (one benefit of the young adult novel format, where a twist at the end of every chapter is considered necessary to keep readers from wandering off to fry ants with a magnifying glass). By keeping faithful, the film fully benefits from the polish of its source material. It’s tense and engrossing at every stage, both in the arena itself and in the lengthy buildup to it.
The casting is spot-on. Faces like Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland are sprinkled in supporting roles, but the movie is driven by the rising young actors in the leads. Jennifer Lawrence is particularly impressive in pulling off a fully sympathetic Katniss, whose prickly personality could have made her unlikeable in the absence of an internal monologue.
The film is close enough to the book to share its literary weaknesses, too. The appeal of this kind of story is in its placing of ordinary people into an impossible situation requiring impossible decisions. But Katniss never has to make any of those decisions. The games unfold in a way that conveniently removes any need for her to harm an innocent person. When the time comes for her to consider the morally courageous choice of reaching out to a friend despite the risk it puts her under, circumstances have already changed to eliminate all the danger from this decision. If she ever chooses a difficult path, it’s because it has become the only path available to her.
Katniss may be tough, but it’s a superficial toughness disguising an ultimately passive character — one who is called upon only to react, and not to act.
The story’s central conflict about whether Katniss can survive the games is an interesting one, but it’s not the one we were promised at the outset: whether she can survive the games without becoming a monster.
The Hunger Games misses its opportunity to become more than an action piece, but it still stands as a top-notch dystopian thriller.
Rated PG-13 for a couple dozen child murders.
4 out of 5