Naysayers will want to compare The Hunger Games (and the forthcoming movie sequels) to The Twilight Saga, or to other stories with similar surface plots, like The Running Man or Japan's Battle Royale. But where Twilight's lead young woman is crippled by her love being torn between two male protectors, The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has always had to take care of herself. With the books' inner monologues, it is clear that Katniss first and most important choice is to protect her family--especially her sister. Unlike Battle Royale, which was an outrageously violent political satire (and worth watching, btw), The Hunger Games is dead serious. In fact the film emphasizes the bleakness that was already in the Suzanne Collins' hugely popular book, but to such a somber effect that the movie actually made me cry... three times!
In the world of The Hunger Games, society has been recovering from a brutal war of rebellion. The rebels were smashed, and one of the thirteen districts was actually obliterated, serving as an example for the other 12 to stay in line with the ruling Capitol of Panem. To keep the districts obedient, the Capitol hosts The Hunger Games once a year, a brutal reality TV bloodsport in which one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, are picked to represent each district. The 24 teens, called "tributes", are then pitted against each other in a outdoor, Survivor-type wooded arena, replete with weapons and other hazards, where only one tribute is allowed to be left standing.
When Katniss' 12-year-old sister Prim's name is called at the reaping, Katniss, in a moment of desperation, volunteers to take her young sister's place. Katniss joins the baker's son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as tribute from their poor, coal-mining 12th district. When they are whisked off to the Capitol to prepare for the Games, they know that their lives will never be the same... that is if one of them is lucky enough to be the sole survivor among the 24 tributes.
The Hunger Games, even the book, often reminded me of a "what if" scenario of classic sci-fi like Fahrenheit 451 or Lord of the Flies. It is not a huge leap to imagine society embracing literal gladiator-type bloodsport as reality entertainment. And seeing the opulence and decadence of the Capitol (with garish characters like Stanley Tucci's blue-haired talk-show host, Elizabeth Banks' vain and clueless 12th district tribute wrangler Effie Trinket, and Wes Bentley's maniplative game-controller Seneca Crane), is really only symbolic representation of the 1% vs 99% that is in the news today.
The Hunger Games is not a perfect movie. The first 20 minutes or so go hog wild with fast jumpy edits and shaky cameras that are truly not necessary to wring tension from the story. Luckily, director Gary Ross and crew eventually tone down that distracting tendency after a bit. With or without filmmaking tricks, the momentum of the first half of the film leading up to the beginning of the Games is truly excellent.
To the filmmakers' credit, much of the brutal children-killing-children is off screen (thank goodness), though you are given just enough imagery to know exactly what is going on. The soundtrack is spare, sparing the audience from unnecessary manipulation, making the tears, when they come, deserved. And though the epilogue conclusion felt a bit anti-climactic to me after all that came before, I conceded that it was to set up the sequels. I've read all the books, so I know that the brutality and simmerings of rebellion in The Hunger Games is just a tease of more to come. And I can't wait!
THE HUNGER GAMES on Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand, and Digital Download on August 18, 2012 at 12:01 A.M.