The Hunger Games


Reviewed by: Sophie Monks Kaufman

Hunger Games
"a deep and far-reaching meditation on the mechanics of power and humanity" | Photo: Lionsgate

Welcome to the dystopian world of Panem. Divided into 12 districts and ruled over by a rich Capitol, it is defined by an annual televised event that unites everyone in horrified awe. On “Reaping Day”, each district randomly selects one boy and one girl aged between 12 and 18 to be their “tributes”. The 24 tributes are sent to the Capitol for training and publicity, all part of The Hunger Games, then placed in a vast, centrally controlled arena and forced to hunt each other until all but the victor are dead. The human blood sport is a tax inflicted by a dictatorship on its people for an attempted uprising many years ago.

This chilling concept, inspired by a combination of mythology, war and reality TV, needs no introduction to fans of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling sci-fi novel that, via taut writing, unshakable horror and an extraordinary heroine, earned popularity beyond its teen market. With the help of Collins, who co-wrote the screenplay, the film has stayed close to the book, carefully knitting together the strands of an intricate fantasy world while ensuring that Katniss Everdeen, the fatherless survivor who volunteers to be tribute in place of her sister, emerges as the beating heart of a world that seems to lack such an organ.

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Jennifer Lawrence, undoubtably cast for her Oscar-nominated performance as a tough Katniss-lite figure in Winter’s Bone, steps warily up to play the heart. When we meet Katniss she, at 16, is the hunter-gatherer for a family made up of her downtrodden mother and beloved little sister, Prim. They live in District 12, the most squalid and impoverished of Panem’s districts. Accompanied by her best friend/strapping hunk, Gale, Katniss keeps her family alive by poaching in the surrounding forests.

Gary Ross’s realisation of District 12 is uncannily true to the book - grey and Dickensian with disheveled old men gnawing at bones. But before this level of grim can become too affecting, a whole new level of grim is launched. Katniss heroically volunteers as tribute to save her sister. As in the book, the most powerful sequences of the film show small acts of defiance from the repressed masses. Instructed to applaud Katniss’ self-sacrifice, thus turning it into an act of theatre, the locals remain deafeningly silent. The camera pans worried faces and the effect is surprisingly emotional. Violence and survival may be the source of the most dramatic scenes but all is tied to complex politics and power struggles.

With diligence, loyalty and restraint, Ross, spends the first half of the film laying down building blocks that will doubtlessly support not just this film, but the two sequels to come.

This is an ambitious adaptation of an ambitious book that doesn’t want for imagination, complexity or character. Yet a certain amount of downsizing and reconfiguring has happened in order to squish a large novel into the mould of a mainstream film. District 12’s male mentor, Haymitch is spruced up, going from shambling drunkard with hidden depths, to an amusing splash of Woody Harrelson on sharp form.

Adapting Katniss was always going to be the biggest challenge, as her solo prowl through the Hunger Games arena is a driven by a starkly logical internal monologue. Jennifer Lawrence does an impressive job of channeling this spirit through physical watchfulness and the inevitable lost depths are largely restored by District 12’s male tribute Peeta. Played with an open heart and profound respect by Josh Hutcherson, Katniss glows in the light of his positive regard, showing up the tributes in the games that have descended into savagery.

Her connection to Peeta and the other connections that drive her are where the real firepower of The Hunger Games lies. The character of Katniss is already bigger than the average game-fodder tribute because self-sacrifice rather than bad luck has placed her in the arena. If a tribute loves someone more than they fear death they are no longer puppets of the games. “I just keep thinking of a way to show them that they don’t own me,” Peeta says, to which Katniss responds, “I just can’t afford to think like that.” Yet, she is the one who the Capitol cannot own, not conniving enough to play the game on their terms but possessed of a profoundly motivated toughness, fiercely illuminated by Lawrence, that means she remains an individual, a victory all the more powerful for its purity.

What appears from the outside like an American retelling of Battle Royale restrained from equivalent gore by a 12A rating is actually a deep and far-reaching meditation on the mechanics of power and humanity with an evocative soundtrack and a blue-haired Stanley Tucci. The vision of the author, the nuances of her creation and the intelligence of the director means that The Hunger Games is a rarer beast than even the groosling, a star-filled, thought-provoking blockbuster that feels like the beginning of something important.

Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2012
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The Hunger Games packshot
Set in a dystopian future, a young boy and girl must fight to the death on live television.
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Read more The Hunger Games reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ****1/2
Stephen Carty **1/2

Director: Gary Ross

Writer: Gary Ross, Billy Ray, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stanley Tucci, Leven Rambin, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Wes Bentley,

Year: 2012

Runtime: 142 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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