Move over, Twilight; later, Harry Potter; there’s a new teen-lit/film franchise set to take the world by storm. The Hunger Games brings a new angle to the youth-oriented blockbuster phenomenon of the past decade.
In the first of a planned four-film series, Suzanne Collins’s book (with an adapted screenplay co-written by Collins herself) is brought to the screen by director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit). Though not an obvious choice to helm such a big ship, Ross acquits himself well, giving the movie depth and drama while catering to Hollywood convention.
The setting, as Hunger Games devotees know, is the future, where the nation of Panem (formerly North America) is ruled by the iron fist of President Coriolanus (Donald Sutherland).
Therein, the garishly outfitted inhabitants of The Capitol live in luxury, while natives of the 12 surrounding districts are subjected to poverty and exploitation – punishment for a rebellion several decades prior. Every year, a young boy and girl, age 12 to 16, are picked from each district to take part in a televised outdoor survival death match called The Hunger Games.
Jennifer Lawrence (who honed her chops as a young woman surviving dark times in Winter’s Bone) is a natural as Katniss Everdeen, a loner who routinely sneaks beyond District 12’s barbed-wire border to hunt for food with her trusty bow and arrow. She shoulders the responsibility of providing for her mom (Paula Malcomson) and little sister Prim (Willow Shields) since the death of her father when she was 11.
There is a Winter’s Bone-style ruggedness to the town; the shaky, close-up camera work; and the squalor of the surroundings. Nazi Germany and Apartheid-era South Africa are evoked as the townsfolk are marched out for “the reaping.” When Prim is selected as female “tribute” for the Games, Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her place.
She is soon whisked off to The Capitol with smitten male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), where they are wined, dined and undergo an intensive two-week training. They get tips from alcoholic former District 12 winner Haymitch Albernathy (Woody Harrelson, convincingly haggard) and stylist/confidant Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, très suave).
One cannot help but think of the divide between first world privilege and third world want, as Katniss is brought from her rustic home to such cartoonish opulence. Ross adds to the commentary by evoking a sense of disgust at the exploitation of these young people when the games begin and they are forced into battle.
It gets bloody quick, but much of the violence is implied, or cut away from at crucial moments. Hiding out in the hills, Katniss must negotiate between her pacifist, anti-establishment ideals and finding a way to win so she can get back to her family.
But such questions get short shrift as the film must deliver the requisite thrills and chills. The film going public – like the film’s fictional TV audience – wants a show. So while The Hunger Games stops shy of truly transgressive sci-fi, it succeeds as mildly thought-provoking entertainment that presses all the right buttons on its way to box office supremacy. Let the Games begin.