THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) (***)
Based on Suzanne Collins' bestselling YA series, Gary Ross' screen adaptation has already become a mega hit. The film was supposed to be the next TWILIGHT and it has surpassed it at the box office already. But is it any good? In the categories of story and especially acting, it is certainly better than any of the TWILIGHT films. With its dystopian society and futuristic technology, it tells a compelling sci-fi yarn. But I still have a sneaky feeling that I've seen it before and done better.
Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence plays the heroine Katniss Everdeen, a scrappy teen who lives in a future America where the country is split up into 12 districts. Each year a boy and a girl from each district are selected to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised battle to the death. The solo winner is awarded food and wealth from the State for their home district. On selection day, Katniss's younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is chosen to represent District 12. Katniss instead volunteers to take her place.
Katniss is whisked off to the Capitol, taken away from her true love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, LAST SONG). Her fellow District 12 competitor is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH). As Peeta says, his mother is finally hopeful that their district will win and she isn't referring to him. Katniss is a skilled hunter and archer. She has survival skills in her blood. What Peeta has going for him is charisma and in the Hunger Games that is just as important. If a contestant can get the crowds to like them, they can gain sponsors, which provide them with advantages during that game. To say the game is rigged would be an understatement.
Helping the District 12 tributes prepare are: Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORN), an overly-made-uped government butt-kisser; Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, PRECIOUS), the tributes' stylist, and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, NATURAL BORN KILLERS), the only winner from District 12. Katniss quickly learns that the Hunger Games is not just a competition, but a big show. Part of the strategy is to impress important people like show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, THE LOVELY BONES) and Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, AMERICAN BEAUTY), the game's architect, who manipulates the rules in order to up the drama and gain the result he wants. However, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, M*A*S*H) is afraid at the popularity of Katniss. She comes from one of the rebellious districts and could bring too much hope to the people.
Once the game commences the tributes the wealthy districts team up to hunt down Katniss. The four teenage killing machines have been raised to win this game. But they've never faced anyone like Katniss. Unions start to form and Katniss takes the young resourceful tribute Rue (Amandla Stenberg, COLOMBIANA) under her wing. But it is these unions that start to make the world of HUNGER GAMES unravel a bit.
When I said earlier that the film seemed like I had seen it done better before, I am not saying that it is made up of well worn clichés. I'm specifically thinking of one film – BATTLE ROYALE. That 2000 Japanese film, one of the best of the 2000s, has a very similar premise where each year a group of teens are selected to compete in a battle to the death in order for the government to keep people in line. The differences between the two films, which are both based on books I have not yet read, make a world of difference.
The chief difference is that in BATTLE ROYALE the contestants are all from the same class. This makes the teams logical. Friends would team up and have reasons to not kill each other. In HUNGER GAMES, the unions between anyone are unlikely. Why would you trust anyone? Even when it seems to have a strategic reason, the characters don't react with the dog eat dog nature that the game insists upon. For instance, if a weaker character is recruited to help hunt down a stronger tribute, why wouldn't the weaker character be killed by his "teammates" the second the stronger character is found?
Another thing that having the contestants know each other ahead of time does is form interesting character dynamics. ROYALE had a large cast but we get to know dozens of the characters, while in HUNGER GAMES, any character other than Katniss and Peeta is one dimensional or no dimensional. This undermines big emotional moments, because we don't know the supporting cast at all because they are given no screen time. Also, in BATTLE ROYALE, the way the contestants "play" the game highlights their character and teenage dynamics. In HUNGER GAMES, the lead up to the game and the game itself show off the personalities of Katniss and Peeta nicely, but the motivations of the rest of the tributes are in question and at times even suspect. Deaths in BATTLE ROYALE have more weight and meaning, in HUNGER GAMES, they're too often just part of the show.
Another big difference between the worlds of BATTLE ROYALE and HUNGER GAMES is that in the former the rules never change and in the latter the rules change too often. From both an audience perspective and from a world building perspective, changing the rules diminishes the drama. If Seneca can come in and manipulate the game, giving one contestant an advantage over the other, the viewers of the film and of the game in the film will begin to feel cheated. And both audiences need to care about the world being creating. If the purpose of the game is to put fear into the population with just a little bit of hope, the more the game seems rigged with sponsors and game manipulation the less hope people will feel and only fuel resentment toward the game and ultimately the government.
Francois Truffaut is credited as saying that the best form of film criticism is to go out and make the movie the way it should be done. With that thought in mind, it is hard not to compare BATTLE ROYALE having seen it with HUNGER GAMES, because it seems to stand as a shining criticism of the weaknesses in the latter film. But the criticism doesn't make HUNGER GAMES look awful, only highlights how it could have been better. If one were to take HUNGER GAMES as a criticism of TWILIGHT, Gary Ross's film looks strong in comparison.
As a teen action romance, HUNGER GAMES is anchored by a powerful performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Just watch her petrified look before entering the game arena. The love triangle is nuanced even if Gale is abandoned for the games. The action sequences create real tension as strategy plays a greater role than who can punch harder. Even with the manipulation, the final moment of the games holds great emotional weight. Katniss does turn into the hope that makes President Snow scared. The hope of a real hero.