The Hunger Games (2012)


Directed by Gary Ross. Starring Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone; X Men: First Class), Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right), Liam Hemsworth (The Last Song), Woody Harrelson (The People vs. Larry Flynt; No Country For Old Men; The Messenger), Elizabeth Banks (Seabiscuit; W.; Spider-Man), Lenny Kravitz (Precious), Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H; Ordinary People; The Dirty Dozen; The Italian Job).

Based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins.

“Reading the book first” is an intimidating concept for the average moviegoer. Earlier this year, I saw Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, which is based on a 1974 novel of the same name. Since I did not read the novel, I quickly became lost while attempting to navigate through the complexly-woven intricacies of the film. This was also right after I saw The Artist, which was brilliant but relatively easy to follow — afterwards, I was not expecting to see something so convoluted! The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is a fantastic adaptation that keeps viewers engaged and informed without a.) requiring one to read the book first or b.) presenting forced and out-of-place expository dialogue. I do not aim to comprehensively summarize the film. Rather, below, I touch on some stand-out aspects which differentiate The Hunger Games from other movies being released today and from other “The Most Dangerous Game”-style man-hunting pieces released in recent years. Criticisms are elaborated upon as well.

Gary Ross, the director and co-writer, masterfully integrated humor into otherwise grave and tense situations. The effects are similar to those achieved in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours; comedy allows the viewers to root for the characters. For example, Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is highly skilled with a bow and relies on it to survive. At one point during the film, she and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) struggle to survive while avoiding other Tributes (other players in the game who aim to kill them). Peeta says to Katniss, “I’ll take the bow.” Katniss stares at him, speechless. He finally adds, “just kidding.” The audience laughed at this humanizing moment of relief in the midst of the absurd (at least to the audience) conditions in which the film takes place.

Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence), the protagonist of The Hunger Games, with her weapon of choice.

The “battle to the death” premise of the film is framed in an understated way. Within the confines of the lavish Capitol (central area of Panem, a futuristic country which occupies the land which we know as North America), President Snow (Sutherland) and other game operators and manipulators describe the scenario: two Tributes (representatives) are chosen from each of the 12 districts of Panem as representatives in the 74th Annual Hunger Games. In other words, twenty four people will fight to the death until one emerges victorious. “May the odds be ever in your favor” is stated on several occasions.

Katniss and Peeta train before the games.

The games seem peculiarly systematic and impersonal until Ross removes us from the luxurious comforts of the indoors and takes us into the wilderness. Handheld, close-in shots and lots of cuts (and not to mention many breakages of the 180 degree rule, for the filmmakers who may be reading) allow viewers to feel the disorientation and panic of a life-or-death situation. Personally, I was reminded of the events that took place within the Colosseum in Ancient Rome, of times when bloodbaths meant entertainment. One of the most powerful characteristics of The Hunger Games is that it is set in the future; it reminds us that history repeats itself and that human nature prevails. The Hunger Games provides a perspective that mixes past, present, and future; we today are no less susceptible to the primitive components of human nature than the Ancient Romans were. Other features of the film which link time periods include uniformed guards/police officers in white suits (comparable to a dystopia, like “Brave New World,” or  to a totalitarian state), fights between the police and mobs of people (comparable to riots in the 60s), and the differences in occupation/class/race among the districts. It is eerie how much the future can resemble the past. It is scary to think that we may not be willing to examine and learn from the past. Finally, with the human population continuously approaching carrying capacity, will limited resources cause us to revert to violence, sacrifice, and murder?

Before I continue, I must speak of three chief criticisms. My first problem is with the film’s transitions. The transitions are abrupt and lack cohesion. For example, the point at which the games begin (when the Tributes get in tubes to ascend into the arena) is barely dramatized and is strangely unexpected (in a way that does not work rather than in a way that resonates with the audience). One could argue that the seemingly sloppy and unthoughtful transitions and shifts in focus are meant to reflect the point of view from which the story is told: the point of view of Katniss. Katniss and the other Tributes are suddenly thrust into gameplay, and there is indeed, from their point of view, no real way to prepare for what comes next. That being said, the transitions need to be more punctuated. My second grievance lies in characterization, or rather the lack of characterization. The deaths of some undeveloped characters simply cannot appreciated.. When I saw Rue die, for example, I was actually happy and relieved, for it meant that Katniss would not have to kill her later on. However, I so badly wanted to (but was unable to) feel for Rue, to fully appreciate her as a sort of little sister figure in Katniss’s life. She gets very little screen time. The supposedly ominous President Snow gets the coveted last shot in the film, but due to his limited screen time, I was left confused as to what kind of character he is and what role he will play in the series.  

Rue's death in The Hunger Games.

Two more examples of this lack of characterization are 1.) the male Tribute who saved Katniss at the supply site towards the end of the film (I was not saddened by his death because I had barely seen him) and 2.) Cato and his pack of followers (the relationships within this group cannot be appreciated because the audience is not given the opportunity to see them interact, strategize, and simply speak with each other). I do recognize that, once again, the story is told from Katniss’s point of view, and the lack of glimpses into the lives of other characters reflects the lack of knowledge about others and the confusion experienced by Katniss when she is hurtled into the woods to fight for her life. Although this is true, movies are better when we can invest in the characters, whether they are positive forces, negative forces, or somewhere in between. Ross (the director) did not effectively facilitate audience investment with respect to most of the characters. My third problem has to do with cinematography. The job of the director of photography is to shoot the film in ways that bring the audience into the world of the story. Frenetic shots/editing techniques and in-and-out-of-focus shots did, at times, add to the story and allow me to identify with the disorientation, panic, and fear felt by many characters. However, at certain points, these techniques diminished my enjoyment of the film and were, frankly, annoying and distracting. These are the criticisms on which I have chosen to explicate. Critique aside, I would like to continue by addressing what is at the heart of The Hunger Games, of this cinematic endeavor.

Peeta's tree bark camouflage.

At its most fundamental level, the conflict in The Hunger Games is whether or not important aspects of society (e.g. individuality, free will, the right to food and resources, the right to live) can be preserved. In the film, people laugh. People cry. Katniss holds her sister and sings her a song. Peeta paints himself to blend in with tree bark yet can still be located by the trail left by his flesh and blood (potentially a symbol of the immutable qualities of mankind).However, the film ends on an ambiguous note. One man who has dishonored his country is forced to commit suicide. Peeta and Katniss show affection, but Katniss may be feigning love to satisfy the public. When Peeta and Katniss are told that one of them has to die in order to declare a winner, they decide to commit suicide together. Earlier in the film, Peeta tells Katniss that he would rather die himself than live as a puppet of his society. Katniss, on the other hand, says that she would rather live, because she has a sister and family members who are reliant on her. Thus, although it seems as though the two of them will die in order to preserve individuality, we never get to see this play out. They are told to stop and are declared co-winners of the Hunger Games.

Presumably, the conflict described here will be continued in the next film. For now, I recommend watching this first film and trying to appreciate it as its own entity. Costumes and set designs are remarkable and effectively contrast the luxurious and decadent lifestyle in the Capitol with both the poverty of the districts and the treacherousness of the forest. Despite a few unrealistic fire effects, visuals are engaging and inventive. With an immensely talented cast and a strong storyline, The Hunger Games is undoubtedly worth the trip to the theater.

More Photos:

Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket. A fantastic example of the film's elaborate costume designs.

Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson).

From left to right: Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

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