The Hunger Games (2012)

13 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

So imagine this—sometime in the distant future, the nation of Panem has grown from the remains of what used to be North America. A new world order has been arranged, as Panem is divided into 12 districts surrounding the powerful central Capitol. After a failed rebellion with a 13th district, there was a peace settlement that comes with a raffle (known as a “Reaping”) that forces the other districts to participate in the death match known as the “Hunger Games.” Every year, two “tributes” are chosen from each district. The tributes are a young man and young woman in the age range of 12 to 18 who compete against the other tributes (and each other) in a gladiatorial battle for the biggest televised event in the nation. The only way to win is to survive.

That’s the main plot element to “The Hunger Games,” a post-apocalyptic action-thriller based on the popular novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins.

The “Hunger Games” book series is probably the most popular book series out nowadays. The teens are drawn in and adults take notice as well. So it should come as no surprise that when a film adaptation of the first book is announced, a huge amount of hype is garnered. But does the movie lead up to its hype?

The answer is yes. “The Hunger Games” is an intense, entertaining action-thriller that remains faithful to its source material. Fans will be happy, and I think those who aren’t familiar with the books are going to be drawn in as well.

The heroine of the story is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from District 12. She’s a strong young woman who cares for her mother and younger sister Prim (Willow Shields). She also has experience in hunting and is a darn good shot with a bow and arrow, as she illegally hunts for food outside the boundaries with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

The 75th annual Hunger Games are approaching and the Reaping begins as the movie does. But the female tribute turns out to be Prim, and so Katniss volunteers to take her place in order to save her. The male tribute is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who is very strong, but also gentle. Katniss and Peeta are escorted to the Capitol and advised by impressionist Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, sporting a ridiculous amount of makeup), former champion (now bitter drunk) Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) to prepare for the Games.

The 24 tributes train in preparation, are evaluated for odds by viewers of the televised show, and are interviewed by the blue-haired on-air commentator (Stanley Tucci) to win support from the public before the big event. Katniss gains the most odds with her showmanship and confidence, but for Peeta to enhance his own image, he announces in his TV interview that he has had a crush on Katniss, letting the “star-crossed lover” angle win both of them admiration from the public. However, as it turns out, Peeta was honest in his statement and Katniss does develop a genuine interest in him. But this comes as a problem, since he must die in order for her to win.

The movie has a running time of two hours and twenty-four minutes. It takes an hour and ten minutes, more or less, to set up the Hunger Games and introduce the characters. Once the actual Games, set inside a giant outdoor arena, are underway, you realize how much is at stake by this point. I admire that the movie takes its time to set up the action before it happens and the entire second half is intense, brutal, and thrilling. It involves Katniss relying on her wits and her skills to survive her competitive, bloodthirsty peers, including the fearsome Cato (Alexander Ludwig) and the knife-throwing Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman).

I should add that despite the ages of these young people competing in the Hunger Games, there is a lot of violence and plenty of gore, pushing the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. The way it starts is particularly cruel, as a bloodbath ensues before some of the tributes have a chance to get their supplies. This is not a film for young children.

This is a shocking development for entertainment—young people killing each other as hidden cameras are placed in the trees to show it—and it seems like the people watching really get a kick out of the violent nature of it. And the fact that these 24 competitors are in the age range of 12 to 18 is scary enough to think about. But the fact that this new world order is forcing them all to accept it for their own good makes it all the more effective. And the villains of the movie—the gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and snarling President Snow (Donald Sutherland)—are ruthless enough to show exactly where these people stand. They even force obstacles upon Katniss and Peeta to make sure nothing comes easy, even setting their part of the forest ablaze. This movie is a great mix of action-violence and social commentary. Is this what mankind could succumb to when things go very wrong for us?

The original novel of “The Hunger Games” is mainly popular because of its protagonist Katniss Everdeen, and for good reason—she’s an interesting, compelling heroine to follow. She fends for herself, but also cares for those who need (and deserve) her help. She knows how to hunt and survive, but isn’t a bloodthirsty monster. In the movie, she’s brought to life by who is probably my favorite young actress working today—Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence is absolutely perfect for the role and delivers an excellent performance, giving the right blend of strength and vulnerability for the character. She’s in almost every shot of this two-and-a-half-hour movie—she’s captivating to watch throughout. And I’m going to just say it—even though I respect the other actresses who auditioned for Katniss (including Shailene Woodley and Saoirse Ronan), I couldn’t imagine anyone else other than Jennifer Lawrence to portray the role. Or maybe she’s just that good.

The supporting cast does a nice job—I especially liked Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz in their roles, and the constantly working yet mostly-underrated young actor Josh Hutcherson (in his fifth book-to-film-adaptation, I believe) is solid and likable as Peeta.

“The Hunger Games” was directed and co-written by an unlikely source—Gary Ross, the co-creator of pleasant comedy-dramas like “Big” and “Pleasantville.” As much as I respect Ross, I wouldn’t have expected him to handle the violence of the actual Hunger Games event so effectively. But the truth of the matter is that he’s fully capable of keeping us involved. I have to admit I thought he was relying too much on the “shaky cam” gimmick in the first half of the movie, but as with the “Bourne” movies, once the action kicks in, it adds to the intensity and brutality of the action scenes. Even before the action, there are plenty of quiet moments to be invested in—in particular, the scenes with Katniss saying goodbye to her family and Gale, and Peeta’s talk with Katniss about how he’s not just a pawn in the Games. Credit for keeping the audience involved should also go to the actors, but also to the other two writers of the screenplay—Billy Ray, writer of “Shattered Glass,” and Suzanne Collins, the author of the original source material this movie is based upon.

Having read the book, I was less concerned about story changes (of which there are little to none) and more concerned about how the violence of the Hunger Games would be handled. But the truth is that “The Hunger Games” is very well-done—the Games are gripping, the action is intense, the parable aspect is clear (subtly, but still there), and we have a compelling character played by a fully capable actress.

I look forward to the film adaptations of the other two books in the series, although this movie works well as a stand-alone movie.

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