I knew little about The Hunger Games or its two sequels before production began on the movie version last year. Having worked in a bookshop over the last couple of years, I was aware of the existence of the trilogy, but didn’t really know what the stories were about. The hype during the production of the movie suggested it would be ‘the new Twilight’, which of course put me off it, as I’m a man in my 30s.
But as the release date of the movie grew closer, it became apparent that any comparisons to Twilight were made purely in terms of how appealing the film (and books) were to teenagers. From the outside looking in (I’ve seen none of the movies or read any of the books), the Twilight saga looks like a bunch of moany vampires moping about instead of having great fun with their advanced capabilities and immortality. But The Hunger Games is set in a very different world. It’s set well into the future, but has a relatively realistic story, a story of something that isn’t too difficult to imagine really coming into existence.
Set in a North America radically changed by wars and uprisings, it is now governed by the Capitol, with the rest of the country broken up into 12 districts. These districts are home to an impoverished underclass, and as punishment for their failed uprising, the districts are forced to offer up one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, each year to take part in a fight to the death, televised across the nation.
The film focuses on District 12, home to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers for The Hunger Games when her 12 year old sister is selected. Alongside a boy called Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss travels to The Capitol to begin training for the event, under the mentorship of former Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). Part of the training involves impressing sponsors, people who can then send supplies or medicine into the Games arena to help keep the contestants alive. Katniss makes a big impression when she is presented before potential sponsors, when she fires an arrow through an apple lodged in a pig’s mouth where the sponsors are dining.
The Games begin with all 24 contestants lined up near to a base that offers equipment and weapons. Haymitch’s last words to Katniss are to avoid going for a weapon immediately, and just to get clear. It’s sound advice, as 8 of the ‘tributes’ are immediately killed. Katniss is reluctant to become involved in the killing, and distances herself from the rest of the tributes. She later discovers that Peeta has joined up with a group of tributes from other districts who are keen to hunt her down, but she teams up with a young tribute named Rue who helps her escape.
As the Games develop, it becomes clear that the people who run the Games can change the odds and rules as they go along. There’s a running commentary on them from Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci (who has a ball as TV host Caesar Flickerman), while Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) is in control of the weather and the elements, and can introduce new hazards to the Games to up the stakes.
I start to edge towards spoiler territory now, so I’ll move on. Jennifer Lawrence gives an excellent performance as Katniss, and seems set for a long and successful career. She’s already been Oscar nominated for her role in Winter’s Bone, and has shown she can handle blockbusters with her turn in X-Men: First Class last year too. Woody Harrelson is probably the best of the rest of the cast, as a man who is clearly tired of The Hunger Games, but still drawn into helping the kids from his district survive.
The look of the Capitol is very strange, with futuristic buildings, but with very outlandish looks for its citizens, a strange cross between 18th century royalty and Japanese youth culture. Tucci, Toby Jones, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Bentley in particular have odd costumes or hairstyles, and there’s no real explanation given for why this style is popular. The editing and directing style can often be confusing and bewildering, with a lot of fast cuts and shaky edits, presumably to make it look like there’s a lot happening but with little actual cost, and it’s something that can be annoying. Some of the CGI is a bit weak (particularly in an early scene when Katniss is hunting a deer, which has clearly been edited in after the fact), but is fine for the most part.
As for the film itself, it’s about average. There’s very little in the way of explicit violence on screen, but unsurprisingly there are some shocking moments when the younger tributes are killed. The film is a little long at almost two and a half hours, and it takes a long time to get to the Games actually beginning, but the action within the Games is paced more quickly. Without revealing the ending, the film does seem to lack an obvious way in to a sequel, but remaining books in the series will certainly be adapted for film.
I have to assume that The Hunger Games is much better than any of the Twilight movies, and is one that people outside of the target market can watch and enjoy.