The setting is Panem, the remains of a collapsed North America; a country made up of 12 districts, all serving the Capitol. There used to be 13 districts, but District 13 rose up in rebellion, and was wiped out by the Capitol. As a remembrance of the rebellion, and as a reminder of the harsh penalty to be paid for those that may think of rebelling against the Capitol, an annual event is held: The Hunger Games.
Each district annually selects at random, from a pool of all 12-18 year olds in their population, one male and one female to represent the district in the Hunger Games. Those 24 “Tributes” are then treated like celebrities, gaining sponsors and being bet on like racehorses, before being unleashed on each other in an arena to fight to the death. Whoever is the last one alive, wins. The entire time, the battles in the arena are televised throughout the districts, making the Hunger Games both a reminder of punishment and the greatest entertainment of the year.
As the film opens, the tributes for the 74th Hunger Games are about to be selected. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), when not preparing her sister Prim (Willow Shields) for her first year of Hunger Games eligibility, otherwise commiserates and hunts with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). At the Reaping selection ceremony for the Games, Prim gets selected, and Katniss volunteers to take her place to represent District 12 alongside male selection Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).
From there, Peeta and Katniss are put through their preparations for the Games, helped along by a drunken mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a previous Games winner from District 12, and primped and presented by fashion designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and his entourage. The two District 12 Tributes excel in the days leading up to the Games, and things don’t seem all that horrible… but then the Games begin.
To its credit, The Hunger Games tackles a huge task, translating and adapting Suzanne Collins’s novel faithfully, and does so exceptionally well. I was actually surprised at how faithful the film was, and how much information it was able to fit into its running time (lengthy for a film, but impressive considering everything contained in the book). It reminded me of the first two Harry Potter film adaptations; those films set up the rest of the franchise, stayed almost page-specific faithful and did their jobs well. The downside, however, was that they were so busy being faithful to the source material that they didn’t offer up much in the way of real artistic flourishes or improvements. It wasn’t until the third Harry Potter film that the voice and vision of the filmmaker began to find its way onto the screen.
Which is to say, this is the franchise set-up. It can, and does, stand alone, but it plays the story by the numbers, both for the fans and for the opportunities it will offer down the road to deviate or expand on things a bit more. Some minor plot wrinkles are dropped from the book (biggest example being the origination of the mockingjay pin), and others are given more space; scenes between Head Gamesmaker Seneca Crane and President Snow allow there to be more to their characters than even what was expressed in the first book, and offer both Wes Bentley and Donald Sutherland respectively an opportunity to show that their talents aren’t being wasted.
A couple major things trip up the film, but they’re understandable stumbles. The source book is told from the perspective of Katniss, and therefore we are privy throughout the story of not only her thoughts but also the history of Panem, and the different people, cultures, environments and animals that populate her world. Outside of going with a voiceover narration as if you’re hearing Katniss’s thoughts (which would’ve been horrendous), the film was always going to be stuck with how to explain certain developments.
For example, when a new danger is revealed in the arena for Katniss to overcome, the audience doesn’t know, off-hand, the extent of that danger. In order to make that information more clear, the film cuts to the arena announcers (Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones) to offer the expository explanation of what’s going on. It’s understandable because the filmmakers needed to find a way to convey the information, and found that their best bet was to utilize the construction of the televised aspects of the arena to do so. It doesn’t entirely work, however, because there is little consistency to this expository usage. It’s not like the film cuts to the announcers all the time, so when it does, it really shines a spotlight on the exposition and there’s a momentary disconnect for the audience.
The other major stumble is that the film is PG-13. Understandable again; this is aiming at a certain age group and is the first in a franchise, but the tale at the heart of The Hunger Games, and the remaining books in the trilogy, is an increasingly bleak one. Keeping the violence of the arena to mere suggestions, shaky cam and quick cuts lessens the impact of the tragedy of young men and women killing other men and women in the name of “keeping the peace.” The book pulls few punches, and the film this will most be compared to, Battle Royale, never knew the meaning of the word “discreet.” In fact, I’m hoping the Battle Royale comparisons will start to lose their steam, once people see (or read) The Hunger Games and also see the Battle Royale films (which have recently been released in North America after a decade of being available overseas). There are core similarities, but both franchises tell very different stories, and even at its most violent, The Hunger Games comes nowhere near what happens in the Battle Royale films.
Visually, the film tries a few stylistic change-ups as it rolls along, starting out with a very indie, handheld-feel (almost with more camera shake than The Blair Witch Project) before settling into, once the Tributes have been selected, a more traditional blockbuster “everything is cool and shiny” look. When things get hectic in the arena, the action cuts quick and leaves much to the imagination, but it never gets as grimey as footage originating in the districts. It’s a quality move that the filmmakers even thought to establish different visual language to convey mood and differences between the districts, Capitol and arena, but sometimes it does go overboard (again, the camera-shake in the first 5 minutes gets brutal; I watch many movies where the filmmakers don’t touch a tripod, but they at least try to keep it steady).
In the end, The Hunger Games is a fine film, though I do wonder how it will play for those that haven’t read the books. I think it manages to walk that tightrope between faithful-for-the-fans and mainstream-for-the-new-blood as well as could be expected. While it didn’t always gel with my own imagination’s take on the characters (everyone is so good-looking and clean, even when they’re covered in dirt), the acting at least manages to convey the characters in spirit to the extent that my difference of opinion regarding the physicality of the roles wasn’t that big a deal. I wish we could’ve had something a bit more than just a clean adaptation, but it’s a damned-if-you, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. As it is, this is a solid start to the franchise and I hope, like with the Harry Potter films, that the films to come take a few more risks with the source material as we head toward the end of the overall story.