How much better would “American Idol” be if the contestants were forced to partake in a quasi-coliseum death match? A brutal reality show is at the forefront in Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games. Aimed at young adults, the book occupied a niche alongside works like “Twilight.” But after receiving positive reviews and becoming a financial success, it was only a matter of time before it was adapted into a blockbuster series. This summer, Gary Ross—best known for helming Pleasantville and Seabiscuitbrings us the eponymous Hollywood translation. Written by Collins, the director, and Shattered Glass scribe Billy Ray, The Hunger Games, while flawed, is an often poignant examination into social class and the media.
In the nation of Panem, the wealthy Capitol hosts an annual event in which one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts are chosen in a lottery as “tributes.” Those unfortunate enough to be selected are required to fight to the death in an arena until one victor remains. This is to serve as punishment for a past rebellion against the government. Running the occasion are President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Games supervisor Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). From the last and the poorest of these impoverished sectors are Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers to take her sister’s place as tribute, and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her male counterpart. Both are brought to the Capitol, where they’re trained by a drunken mentor, former victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and their overseer, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).
What’s kept pulling me back to The Hunger Games is the nuanced depiction of the Capitol. In fact, the entire process of scoring sponsors—who have the ability to gift tributes food, medicine, and tools—is incredibly entertaining. The filmmakers didn’t cut corners in portraying the upper class, whose fashion sense was practically inspired by David Bowie’s wardrobe circa the 1970s. With so much detail paid to crowd, it’s no wonder Ross constantly indulges in them via a series of wide shots. And it always helps to have an endlessly cartoony Stanley Tucci, who stars as Caesar Flickerman—the Game’s equivalent to Ryan Seacrest (except, of course, the former has zing)—host.
The best characters are the ones who blur the line between having control and being sacrificial lambs. For example, Trinket isn’t much of an antagonist. Dressed in a series of flamboyant dresses and powdered wigs, Effie’s a caricature of Panem’s elite; whilst endorsing the slaughter of innocent children, she’s more concerned with day-to-day manners. But though deluded, she’s as much a pawn to Snow’s game as the teenagers themselves. To a certain extent, Crane’s also applicable. Both Banks and Bentley deliver quality performances. Yet none compare to Lawrence’s show-stealing act.
She’s Kristen Stewart minus the dependency issues and mono-stare. Considering the movie’s target audience, it’s refreshing to see a strong, independent woman in the lead. Katniss, although careful and methodical, is courageous and welcoming enough to make us root for her. Lawrence, despite being 22, looks the part and is an infectious headliner. However, the uneven screenplay left me questioning some of the character’s decisions—especially once the competition has begun.
Unfortunately, Ross is a tad weak during the film’s second half. Detached from the wonderful art direction of the Capitol, he becomes too reliant on shaky camera and rushing through plot points. It’s strange because, at the start of her training, Katniss’ advisors explain that her fellow tributes are nothing compared to starvation and disease; the action inside the arena, however, is too brisk to reflect this danger. But given the length of the source material, it’s no surprise the filmmakers gloss over a few elements. Be that as it may, the dynamic between our heroine and Peeta becomes too unclear in the process. Also, due to the toned-down violence and shoddy characterization, the deaths of these faux-gladiators aren’t as resonant as they could’ve been.
Nevertheless, these inconsistences barely detract from the experience. The film’s an action-packed blockbuster with enough brains and originality to dearly recommend. And considering the corniness that usually accompanies movies marketed towards teens, it seems the odds were ever in our favor with The Hunger Games.