Movie Review: The Hunger Games

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The Hunger Games

Lionsgate, PG-13, 142 minutes

U.S. Release: 23 March 2012

As anyone reading this probably knows by now, The Hunger Games is a very successful series of Young Adult novels. Since the film rights were acquired by Lionsgate, it has been groomed as a potential successor to the lucrative Harry Potter and Twilight franchises of the past decade. For my part, I read the first book in late 2011 at the urging of multiple friends, but I would not describe myself as a fan of The Hunger Games. I was eager to see how a big studio would interpret the book while also looking to break box office records.

The Hunger Games trilogy of books, written by Suzanne Collins, is set in a post-apocalyptic version of North America, where a totalitarian country known as Panem has replaced the long-lost civilization of our age.  Panem is ruled by a Capitol, which controls twelves Districts that are spread across the Continent.  Decades before the story began, the Districts revolted against the rule of the Capitol, but they were defeated.  As punishment, they are forced to send one teenage boy and girl to the Capitol each year, where those children fight to the death in a gladiatorial contest that is broadcast on live TV.

The story has a lot in common with other Young Adult sci-fi/fantasy series that have sprung up in the wake of Harry Potter, but it stands out for the bleak world it presents and the level of violence in the story.  For better or worse, the story has shades of earlier dystopian fiction intended for a more mature audience.  In particular, The Running Man (a Stephen King novel turned into an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie), featuring a reality TV show in which the main character tries to escape a violent death, and Battle Royale (a Japanese novel and movie), about a government which forces children to fight to the death, appear to be major influences, though the Ms. Collins disputes this.  Nonetheless, the similarities are hard to miss, although the story goes in its own direction enough to dispel accusations that it is a rip-off.

Before going further, let me say that there are many good things about The Hunger Games. It is a thoroughly well-made film. The soundtrack is perhaps the best part of the film, but it is far from the only positive. The Hunger Games is well-acted throughout, with Woody Harrelson’s jaded ex-contestant and Lenny Kravitz’s sympathetic fashion designer as particular stand-outs. Jennifer Lawrence is also very good, but she is an adult and she looks it. Next to the rest of the contestants, all of whom looked like actual teenagers, she unfortunately stood out. The visual effects were better than the movie’s $80 million budget might have suggested. Apart from an overuse of shaky cam, especially in the early scenes, this is a visually engaging film.

I understand if my preceding comments come across as backhanded compliments, but they is not intended as such. When this film is good, it really is good. However, overall, The Hunger Games is a film that thinks it is much better than it really is, and this shows through in the way the story is told. Part of the blame falls on the original novel, which is quite predictable and sometimes falls into cliches of teen and dystopian fiction. Some of the changes for the film actually improve the story, but in many other cases they lessen the impact of the story.  For example, by repeatedly cutting away from the contestants of the Games to show the Gamemakers preparing each new challenge, the filmmakers ruined much of the suspense that kept the book engaging. After spending more than an hour – half the movie’s running time – on the build-up to the arena, I wanted to see more action there and more development for the various contestants, not a bunch of unnamed extras sitting around something that looks like a holographic table from Avatar.

This is related to my main issue with the film, which is the violent and disturbing content, such as it is. See, The Hunger Games, the book, is one of the only things I’ve read that left me feeling truly disturbed and somewhat sickened at the end. This isn’t a criticism, because the story was engaging and the disturbing content was part of what made it so.  Not just the child-on-child violence, but the struggle for survival against the elements were all depicted in stark and graphic terms.  In the movie much of the violence was blink-and-you-miss-it brief.  Many of the more disturbing scenes were toned down and when scenes of injury or death were not completely off-camera they were often obscured by excessive use of shaky cam. I wondered if the shaky cam was used deliberately to lessen the impact of the violence, but given it’s prevalence in the opening scenes of the movie, I think the director was just overly fond of the technique.

I realize that the film-makers wanted to bring in the younger crowd who helped make the book so popular, so I’m not at all surprised that they aimed for a PG-13 rating. However, more than just the violence was lost. Without wanting to spoil too much, a number of wolf-like creatures in the climax that were possibly the most disturbing part of the book have been stripped down to the point where they are indistinguishable from any old dog-like monster. They were startling when jumping out of the ground, but beyond that, they lacked the menace and creepiness that was essential to their more human book counterparts. On the other hand, I’m assured by people who haven’t read the book that the film is plenty disturbing on its own, so perhaps I’m being overly picky.

I’m in a tricky place trying to discuss The Hunger Games, since I honestly enjoyed the movie and I don’t think any of the things that bothered me ruined the movie. It’s just that, like the book, I thought it was good but not great. No matter how technically well-made or well-acted, the story just isn’t that original or shocking, and the film strips away the most visceral and gripping parts of the book. The hype and expectations put on The Hunger Games would not be fair to any movie, so I did my best to appreciate it without being overly critical. Nonetheless, I was not engaged by the story or setting as much as I have by other, better SF franchises that The Hunger Games is trying to follow.

I give The Hunger Games three-and-a-half stars out of a possible five.  Die-hard fans will probably love it and the movie is sure to be a financial success, but at the end of the day it’s just not on the level it wants to be.

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