Old 03-25-2012, 12:50 AM
Gary Ross's The Hunger Games

Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:



The Hunger Games (2012)

“The Hunger Games” is basically a far tamer version of a story already told over a decade earlier in Kinji Fukasaku’s masterpiece “Battle Royale,” itself based on a book by Koushun Takami. Both stories are set in a dystopian future and tell of young kids forced by the government to fight each other to the death in a gruesome battle where there can only be one victor. The author of “The Hunger Games,” Suzanne Collins, claimed to have never heard of “BR” before getting her book published. Did anyone actually believe her? Not really, but she did make a few changes in an attempt to make the story her own, and what results is a decent take on this already-told tale.

The film begins with a prologue explaining that the 13 districts of Panem once rose up against the capital in rebellion. The rebellion was put down, but as an everlasting punishment, it was decreed that every year the 12 remaining districts must put up two tributes each, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, to participate in The Hunger Games, a battle in which the 24 players will have to fight each other in an arena until there is only one survivor.

In district 12, we meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), her sister Primrose (Willow Shields), and Katniss’s close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). District 12 is a poor mining town where supplies are scarce, so Katniss goes hunting a lot in order to have something to trade, which has given her some skill with a bow and arrows. The next Hunger Games is just around the corner, so everyone in the district gathers to hear the announcement of who will be chosen. The first name announced is Primrose’s, causing a shocked Katniss to volunteer in her place. The second name is a young man by the name of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

The two are allowed a few quick goodbyes before being shuffled off to the Capitol where they meet with their trainer, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose job it is to give them advice on how to win. Katniss and Peeta also get a chance to meet the 22 other players that they will be going up against, as well as a chance to assess their own strengths during the training process. Cinna and Haymitch do everything they can to prepare the two for what awaits them in the arena, but once they’re out of their hands, it’s up to Katniss and Peeta to fight for their own survival in a battle to be the one winner.

One of the questions that immediately pops up, about both films actually, is what kind of society would condone such an event? In “BR,” the battle is held because adults feared the youth who were boycotting school. Here, it’s a rebellion that occurred over 70 years ago, but the government is still making the districts pay the price. What’s more is that the whole thing is televised to the masses, most of whom are tuning in to see how their tributes are doing while some are watching for the fun of it, even making bets on the outcome. Why would this be allowed to continue when most of the people responsible for the rebellion would be dead by now?

The most prominent change is indeed that it is being televised, turning it into a kind of extreme reality TV show. One of the points that Collins seems to be making with her story is that reality TV has gotten way out of hand, which is something that pretty much anyone could tell you from flipping through the cable channels, except here, it’s also being used to send a message to the masses, a reminder that treason will not be tolerated. Apparently this is something that the government still feels the need to tell them even though over 70 years have passed. If anything, you would think this would cause another uprising, but apparently not.

The film is made up of two distinct halves. The first gives us a quick introduction to the main characters that we’ll be following, along with their time in training and other preparations for the battle. This half feels like it runs a little too long. After awhile you’ll probably get the feeling that the film needs to be moving on to the game itself. That’s not to say that this section has bad pacing, just that after the intros and a bit of training, there’s not much else for them to do before entering the arena.

The second half is the game itself, which immediately starts in a chaotic manner. Now, for those thinking that this must be a particularly violent film, let me tell you now that it’s not. There are some brief flashes of fights and a small amount of blood here and there, but it’s very minimal in the amount of violence that you actually see, unlike “BR” where the madness and the horror of the violence is seen everywhere.

This is the section that begins to get thrilling. It’s not as thrilling as I was hoping for, but you still get a fair amount. We mainly follow Katniss as she attempts to survive. At first, she just tries to get away from everyone, but the powers that be can’t allow that, so they draw her back with a forest fire. This forces her to deal with a small group that has formed an alliance. How she tries to deal with them I’ll leave you to discover.

This section does begin to drag on a bit, particularly near the end when it gets down to just a few players. This is where I was hoping that they would throw in a few more thrills to liven things up a bit, but as I mentioned earlier, this is a much tamer version of the story, so we don’t really get all that much in the way of excitement, particularly because we’re following two people who don’t want to fight unless they’re forced to. However, Katniss’s and Peeta’s attempts to survive do make for an interesting time because there are other tributes who are completely willing to fight to be the last one standing.

One thing that made “BR” a masterpiece was its fascinating view of violence and the different ways that kids might react to it, particularly when they’re not prepared for it. It used violence to show those different reactions and the lengths we go to survive. “The Hunger Games,” while an entertaining tale, doesn’t get to delve into that very much because of the restricted view of following one or two people, but this at least allows us to see a couple of reactions to this scenario.

The casting here makes a big difference in helping make this a believable story. Jennifer Lawrence, recent Oscar nominee for “Winter’s Bone,” brings a great emotional quality to Katniss, a fearless character who wants to survive for her sister’s sake. There’s also some notable supporting performances strewn throughout the film including Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, Katniss’s fellow tribute, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, Katniss’s and Peeta’s mentor, Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, controller of the game, and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, host of a talk show and commentator on the game.

“The Hunger Games” is an intriguing tale and a good start to what is sure to be a continuing franchise. There are two more books in the series which will hopefully take the series in a more original direction that will allow us to get to know the characters even better. Sure this entry is a ripoff of “Battle Royale,” but it’s still an entertaining ride with great casting that will more than likely please fans of the book and those who’ve never even heard of it. 3/4 stars.
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