by Coop Cooper
In the same league as “Harry Potter” and the “Twilight” series, Suzanne Collins’ 3-part novel series “The Hunger Games” now has a film adaptation in theaters. Based on the early numbers at the box-office, it could be the blockbuster hit of the year.
The story takes place in the future, 75 years after a near-apocalyptic American civil war. The country is divided up into 12 districts and oppressed by a cruel dictatorship that supports itself through the slave labor of these districts. As a means of control and entertainment, the government created the Hunger Games in which each district must offer up a young male and female representative to fight other district representatives to the death in a wilderness arena. The sole winner gets to live out a life of luxury and their district is awarded extra food rations for the year.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in impoverished District 12, where she illegally hunts wildlife with her friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) just to keep her catatonic mother and helpless younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields) alive. When the Hunger Games lottery chooses Prim as its tribute, Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her place. Her district partner/competitor is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a boy who once showed Katniss a moment of kindness when she was starving. At the capital, they are mentored by the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) who is the only survivor in the history of the games from their district. As their battle in the arena approaches, Katniss is conflicted by her familial duty to survive and her blossoming friendship with Peeta. While in the arena, her heroic actions and compassion sow the seeds of rebellion within the districts.
The film is an accurate and highly loyal adaptation of the novel. Very little was excised from the original story, allowing for a satisfying, and immersive experience for fans of the books. Having said that, it might be hard for a non-fan to get into the story. The candidates must go through makeovers, training, television specials, interviews and an entire host of events leading up to the arena. While this builds great characterization, it is easy to imagine a non-fan getting impatient as the actual fighting/survival doesn’t take place until the last half of the film.
While “The Hunger Games” has several violent sequences – the beginning of the arena battle being particularly bloody – it succeeds in portraying the violence as horrific instead of glorifying it. This cannot be said for author Suzanne Collins’ suspected source material, the Japanese novel, comic book and 2000 film “Battle Royale” which has a nearly identical plot. The “Battle Royal” film is treated almost like a pulpy horror film in its gory depiction of children killing children in an effort to become the sole survivor of the contest. Collins essentially westernized the concept and made it palatable for a younger generation of readers by sidestepping the blood in favor of deeper interpersonal relationships and teen romance. “Battle Royale” is a superior film in its own right (5 out of 5 stars), but is definitely reserved for a more mature crowd and very different in tone to “The Hunger Games.”
One interesting and baffling stylistic choice in “The Hunger Games” was the 1970’s retro aesthetic used in the photography and production design. The sets, costumes, even the title sequence font felt like it was inspired by “Logan’s Run,” “A Clockwork Orange” or George Lucas’ first film “THX-1138.” While that look appeals to my tastes, it may strike younger viewers as a bit odd or outdated. Even many of the darker, outdoor scenes had a heavy film-grain look as if the cinematographer was intentionally trying to make it look low-budget retro. Intentional or not, It worked for me, but for viewers used to high-gloss studio films, it may distract them from the story.
The acting was predictably excellent but once again, Jennifer Lawrence is the actress to savor. After praising her in the 2010 film “Winter’s Bone,” I predicted she would one day win an Oscar. She was in fact nominated that year, but “The Hunger Games” will put her over the top as Hollywood’s new “it” girl.
A few snarky nitpickers aside, fans will love it and the uninitiated will probably enjoy it if they keep an open mind. Given the opening weekend box office numbers, Lion’s Gate (which is still technically an independent studio) will be salivating at the opportunity to release the next two “Hunger Games” film adaptations in the next few years. This success alone could raise the studio’s revenue and reputation into the realm of the big leagues.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars