Let the games begin. And it’s not quidditch at Hogwarts, or that weird baseball scene in Twilight - this is serious stuff. Based on Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic young adult novel, The Hunger Games, is a grim, relentless fight to the death. Twenty four teenagers enter: one leaves
Collins was involved in adapting what’s likely to be the first of a screen trilogy with director Gary Ross. Together they have crafted a film that for almost two and a half hours has you on the edge of your seat.
Our thirst for reality television. The ever-growing division between the opulence of the rich and the poverty of the poor – and the ever-growing tension across the divide. The feeling of being at the mercy of unknown, faceless people, corporations, governments. Being controlled through fear. The helplessness that comes from not knowing how to stop the chaos or even how to define it. The refusal to be a slave – to be owned. The hope that comes from seeing one person, or one nation stand up for its rights. The hope that comes from making a connection with another person
All of these themes and more are portrayed in the story of The Hunger Games. The world of Panem (read: North America) consists of twelve Districts, and each District exists in varying states of poverty – bled dry to support the intensely rich Capitol. In retaliation for past uprisings (and in return for food parcels if you submit your name more than once), the children of each District must submit their names as a ‘tribute’ each year for The Hunger Games, a spectacular televised event in which all contestants must fight each other to the death in a specially designed arena – the last girl or boy standing wins fame and glory, and wealth for their District. The Districts have no choice but to submit, and the Capitol makes a grotesque game out of the idea – with contestant scorecards, wagers, chances to sponsor contestants, interviews and more
One of those contestants is Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence in her second fantasy franchise after last year’s X-Men: First Class. But her Katniss is closer to the backwoods toughie she was Oscar-nominated for in indie breakthrough Winter’s Bone
Katniss comes from one of the poorest areas, District 12. It’s a coal mining region, and it’s also the Newcastle or Sunderland of the competition: only two winners have come from this part of the world in the long history of the games
At the beginning Ross uses close-ups and hand-held camera to give us a strong, intimate sense of proximity to Katniss and her hard-scrabble world. Already a hunter and a survivor, protecting her young sister, keeping her fragile mother close, Lawrence conveys grace, a troubled introspection and a sense of purpose - she has a renegade streak, tempered with a sharp intelligence. But when her sister’s name is chosen for the games, she’s quick to volunteer to take her place
She finds two mentors: Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the elegant stylist with the gold guyliner who helps her present a confident face to the public, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the drunken former winner with the Owen Wilson hair, whom she initially regards as a buffoon. Without labouring the point, the film suggests that the contestants need to be aware of the audience: that sponsors can supply support and relief, and help affect the outcome of the games. Among the other grown-ups, Stanley Tucci has a ball as the over-the-top host of the games television show
Given the premise of the event, which is a fight to the death, there is a considerable amount of restraint in the actual violence shown - although the impact is still quite strong. And Ross has found clever ways of cutting from the action between the contestants to the manipulations behind the scenes.
One of the significant emotional strands of the story is Katniss’ developing relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow contender from District 12. There is a potential for a Twilight-style love triangle in The Hunger Games - there is another boy in the village (Aussie actor Liam Hemsworth) who is her friend and fellow-hunter - but it’s only a minor part of the narrative here, and it serves to heighten Katniss’ divided sense of self, and her strong desire for independence. No doubt this love triangle will heat up in round two but thankfully at this stage the romance is devoid of the cheesy lines and longing stares that can afflict teen flicks.
There’s absolutely no need to have read the book to understand what’s going on, though judging from the positive chatter from die-hard fans after the show, if you have, you won’t be disappointed
With its well-formed characters, strong narrative, tense action and heartbreaking moments, The Hunger Games is more than just a blockbuster film of a blockbuster book, it’s also smart, poignant and thrilling
Watch the trailer here