We review The Hunger Games – A faithful treat for fans, with enough bite for newcomers

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Novel adaptation The Hunger Games arrives in South Africa in ultra-hype mode, not only critically acclaimed but also America’s box office champion of the past 3 weeks straight. Based on a teen-targeted sci-fi tale by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is rightly regarded as a Twilight killer, offering escapist thrills and romantic tentativeness in a way that is accessible to ALL viewers – couching the conflict in an intriguing, grim setting and centring events around likeably proactive characters.

I’m pleased to report that, although far from perfect, The Hunger Games film delivers what it promises. It’s a faithful adaptation of its literary source material, sure to please fans (for the most part), and it’s also an engrossing, thoughtfully constructed ride for newcomers to the series.

Set in a Dystopian future, where America has been whittled down to 12 oppressed Districts serving a gluttonous Capitol, The Hunger Games focuses on an annual event crucial to maintaining this unbalanced power structure. As a cruel reminder of the Capitol’s domination, every year a teenage boy and girl from each District is selected by lottery to fight to the death in The Hunger Games, a televised tournament that is basically Survivor meets Gladiator meets The Truman Show… with a hefty dose of manipulation and image manufacturing thrown in for extra “entertainment” value.

Sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself District 12’s first ever volunteer when she steps forward to replace her painfully fragile little sister, Prim (Willow Shields) in the 74th Games. Katniss, a strong-willed survivor, has a genuine shot at winning given her years of illicit hunting to feed her family. However, victory may involve killing nice guy Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the boy who once saved her life, and whose greatest strength is his charm. Together, these District 12 competitors are helped in the lead-up to the Games by their support squad, including drunken former winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), garish liaison Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and surprisingly supportive stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).

Coming from smaller indie studio Lionsgate, The Hunger Games demonstrates impressive world creation on an obviously limited budget. It’s one of the most enjoyable things about the film. Writer Collins has a very stripped down descriptive style and, guided by a few choice sentences, director Gary Ross and the rest of his filmmaking team have constructed a universe of striking contrasts.

Particularly impressive is the look of District 12 – a coal mining region in rural Appalachia. This is a dirty, grey, washed out place that has long ago lost hope, stranding its inhabitants in Depression Era poverty (and fashions) for all eternity. With death and suffering constantly at the door, everything is worn threadbare and prematurely aged… which is in direct opposition to the faddishly synthetic, wealthy and youth-conscious Capitol.

The Hunger Games gets a lot right. Pretty much every fan-favourite moment from the printed page has been translated into a standout scene in the film, including the “Girl on Fire” chariot parade, Katniss’s underdog alliance, the frantic, bloody start of the Games and, best of all, the Tracker Jacker incident and its hallucinatory aftermath.

For the record, The Hunger Games is brutal without being graphic. The film may not be gushing blood but you certainly still get a chill from (potentially controversial) moments like the gang of vicious “Careers” – other competitors groomed from birth for the Games – prowling the arena, looking for their next victim. These callously jubilant teens embody the worst kind of bully, and the film could actually have included more footage of them to ramp up the innate horror of the Games.

For all its spikes of exhilaration, The Hunger Games does suffer from the same problem as many other novel-to-film adaptations. Like The Da Vinci Code and others, in trying to fit in as much content from the hefty text as possible, The Hunger Games really feel its 2 hour 20 minute running time – particularly during its many quietly contemplative, score-free scenes.

It’s worth noting at this point that the film’s fidelity to the novel also carries through to its visual stylings and narrative approach, for better or worse. Collins’s book is highly subjective, depicting events solely from Katniss’s perspective. In conveying this visually – at least when Katniss is stressed or disorientated – the movie is VERY heavy on shaky cam, to the point of inducing motion sickness.

Narratively, the one-character perspective means the film is focused on Katniss at the expense of any other figure (a minor exception is the witnessed exchanges between Donald Sutherland’s sinister president and Wes Bentley’s Head Gamemaker). This single-character focus could easily be considered a flaw by those unfamiliar with the text, as without exposure to Katniss’s internal thought processes, many of the film’s supporting cast seem undeveloped and short on credible motivation.

Fortunately for the viewer though, Katniss is a great character, and she’s treated to a great portrayal. It falls to Lawrence to carry the film and she’s magnificent. Her Katniss is a perfect mix of toughness, beauty, bravery, common sense and emotional vulnerability – a fantastic role model for girls to have in this Era of the Kardashian.

It’s a bit disappointing that after a slow build-up to the Games, and the high intensity of the tournament, that the film’s ending is quite limp. Once again its anti-climactic nature is true to its source material. However, even taking this into account, the final encounter of the Games seems to have been unnecessarily neutered to the point that it doesn’t feel as enjoyably “high stakes” as it should have been. It’s just a bit too easy.

In the end I’m torn between rewarding The Hunger Games with a rating of 3.5 or 4 stars out of 5. However, given the film’s unusually strong performances, and the fact that it’s a hundred times more hard-hitting and well conceived (in all departments) than most other teen sci-fi – consider the derivative I Am Number Four – today I’m being generous.

Last Updated: April 12, 2012

Noelle Adams

Sometime Tomb Raider. Full-time Pop Culture fanatic and Geekaissance Woman. Most often spotted outputting Pop Culture opinion pieces, writing fanfic and original genre fare, cosplaying and bringing the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu smackdown. Editor of the Comics and Toys section.

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