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Review - The Hunger Games

19 May 2012
We're still Hungry!
In a future America ripped apart by war and rebranded Panem, a teenage girl called Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes her sisters place in the annual Hunger Games – where 24 young people from across the nation battle to the death in an arena for the entertainment of the Capitol.

In case you are somehow unaware, The Hunger Games is an adaptation of the first in a trilogy of novels by the American author Suzanne Collins – a series that has sold in excess of 27 million copies since it first appeared in 2008. Collins herself worked on the screenplay with co-writer and director Gary Ross and the pair has assembled a sterling cast including Oscar nominee Lawrence as well as Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson for this post apocalyptic tale.

As a self professed fan of the books, mainly because they buck the trend of teen novels by actually being readable, I was unusually positive about The Hunger Games. Collins’ novels are simply but effectively crafted and the world is unusually bleak and lived in, while the trials the main characters go through are particularly weighty for material aimed at a young audience. The solid crew and well above average casting also hinted at the potential of the production and everything from the promotional material to the early reviews have been nothing short of tremendous.

So it should come as no surprise that The Hunger Games is a strong film, sometimes a great one, and certainly goes some way towards redefining the expectations of those who commonly expect their favourite novels to be unfairly hobbled on their way to the big screen. But it also has its share of problems, some which will be more obvious to fans and others problematic for newcomers.

The Hunger Games is a long film, clocking in just a little shy of two and a half hours. It’s no bad thing, I often wish adaptations had a little more meat on their narrative bones but unfortunately, even at this length, the experience feels like little more than a summary at times. Vast swathes of plot are left out and while this is a necessary part of the adaptation process, the excisions do a disservice to fans and newcomers alike, particularly as they tend to focus more on the moments of emotion. Those familiar with the books will have an easier time of it, filling in the gaps with their own impressions and lending added weight to the important relationships but they’ll still feel bereft. And those experiencing the story for the first time may find themselves confused by the speed of certain alliances and unwilling to buy some of the films more significant moments.

Even another 15 minutes would have made a huge difference to the emotional weight of The Hunger Games, especially as the end game approaches. Perhaps it’s something we’ll see on the home video release.

That being said, the film is still an effective action drama which captures the grim lives of the people of Panem wonderfully in a rather fleetfooted opening in District 12. Here, director Ross introduces us to the films handheld, almost documentary style camerawork. It’s especially effective in the near monochrome wilds of the opening scenes, recalling nothing so much as Lawrence’s own Winter’s Bone (read the review) and providing a neat contrast to the scenes of technology and splendour once the film makes the move to the Capitol.

Suzanne Collins makes plenty of references to the over the top fashion and décor of the Capitol dwellers and costume designer Judianna Makovsky and production designer Philip Messina go for broke bringing that vision to life. The clothes are garish and often bizarre without crossing over into the distractingly ridiculous too often while the locations are eye catching and strange and, in my opinion, a brave take on the author’s original ideas.

The marketing campaign for The Hunger Games has wisely kept the games themselves off screen to date and the film also manages to keep them from audiences for over half of its running time. When Katniss and her 23 adversaries finally take to their booby trapped podiums, there’s a palpable sense of excitement and dread, the film lingering on a full one minute countdown as we prepare for the games to finally begin.

You may have heard that the film was cut locally to secure a 12A rating, mostly digitally removing excessive blood, but rest assured The Hunger Games remain about as vividly drawn as you’d like for its target audience. There’s no avoiding the fact that, in the end, this is a story about the death of almost two dozen near children and the kills themselves are brutal and often shocking. But it’s all for naught without the right amount of emotional connection and one significant death (fans will know what I’m referring to) failed to reach the expected emotional crescendo. This was partly to do with some haphazard editing but also, fundamentally, because we simply don’t have enough time to connect fully with these characters. It’s also here that the handheld camerawork loses its lustre, allowing little more than a glimpse of significant action moments. It’s likely a way to avoid too much on screen violence but I was soon longing for a steadycam.

The film may not quite deliver on its potential but there’s little doubt that the casting is next to perfect. Lawrence shines as Katniss, playing younger and less self assured than she usually does and managing to convince as a country girl totally out of her depth in this amazing new world. My favourite moment featured her and the just plain perfect Stanley Tucci, who plays ageless TV host Caesar Flickerman. In an interview before the Games, the older pro draws the frightened young woman in with kind words, making her forget the crowd nearby, while Lawrence responds with a performance that melts from awkward to unselfconsciously charming. It’s sublime.

Most of the rest of the cast performs admirably, especially a memorable Elizabeth Banks as an extremely made up Effie, a fun turn from the rather too young and healthy looking Woody Harrelson and a much expanded role for Donald Sutherland’s character. The only real dud is Lenny Kravitz's Cinna, a shame for a role that will become pivitol, and young Josh Hutcherson (read our interview with the young star) does what he can though can’t match Lawrence for presence.

Speaking of Sutherland’s extra scenes, Collins and Ross have also added material to this version of The Hunger Games, generally to great effect. The film relies on no narration from Katniss’ character, instead presenting us with a wider canvass through scenes which show Sutherland’s reactions to the games and several moments in the nerve centre of the event itself – a mass of wonderful holographic controls and devious devices – while also providing us with fantastic running commentary from Tucci and Toby Jones. The less restrictive narrative helps to give you a sense of how the wider world of Panem works and also clues in audience members to events which might be significant in future episodes.

The Hunger Games is undoubtedly an impressive take on the material and will no doubt be a treat for fans who are willing and able to fill in the narrative ellipses. For newcomers, it’s a more difficult proposition – will the strong performances and vivid evocation of a future world be enough to keep them entertained? Or will they simply not buy the near instant relationships and frequent narrative conveniences which move the plot along. There’s little doubt that The Hunger Games will be a box office smash and I’m happy to see a mature and finely crafted take on some worthy source material, perhaps Ross and co can join the dots a little better next time.
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