There is that ever-present tendency for popular teen adventure novels to “turn dark” in their latter installments, creating some curious issues when they are adapted into films and have to wrangle for audience-appropriate ratings with certification boards. Shooting The Hunger Games, then, adapted from Suzanne Collins’ acclaimed 2008 novel, is a particularly bold undertaking, working from pulls-few-punches source material which is also thoroughly downcast throughout.
Borrowing plenty from the likes of Stephen King’s novels The Last Walk and The Running Man, as well as Koshun Takami’s Battle Royale, The Hunger Games transpires in a vague future, in which North America has been razed and rebuilt as Panem, where the denizens exist in one of twelve districts, controlled by the all-powerful Capitol. As punishment for a fierce uprising which saw the 13th district destroyed, each year, The Hunger Games takes place, a fight to the death between 24 combatants from the districts – a boy and a girl chosen from each – with the winner receiving gifts, riches and enough food to sustain themselves and their family indefinitely. When young Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected, her older sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers in her place, and along with the selected male from her district, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), enters a fight they know they likely will not survive.
It is fair to say that one has to view teen phenomena like Harry Potter, Twilight, and this one with the audience they are intended for in mind. The Hunger Games was never going to be, and never intends to be the darkly comic bloodbath that was Kinji Fukasaku’s adaptation of Battle Royale, nor the slick satire on consumerism and the media that was the Arnie-starring The Running Man film. More subdued for sure, but also smart enough to invest plenty in the protagonists and their plight to make it a worthwhile trip, there is much to enjoy here, albeit a fair amount that non-fans of the books are likely to turn their noses up at also.
True to the spirit and structure of the book, the games themselves comprise only a portion of this story – about half – with the film’s opening hour detailing Katniss taking her sister’s place and training alongside Peeta for the inevitable battle. What could easily have been a laboured trundle is on the whole a compelling – if over-indulgent – examination of a harsh dystopia in which the media magnates and assistants working on the games are completely disconnected from anything resembling basic humanity. The absurd facial hair of Wes Bentley’s games-master, the nearly unrecognisable Elizabeth Banks dolled-up as a district escort, Stanley Tucci’s TV host with a giant blue weave; these things, along with the overproduction of The Hunger Games TV shows, amplifies this discord, with the saturated visuals of the Capitol finding potent juxtaposition against the washed out, grainy sights we see of the districts, not dissimilar from how concentration camps are usually depicted.
What the film does right is flesh Katniss and Peeta out as developed people we can care about and want to live. What it does wrong occurs when the game itself begins, and the strain of punchily adapting a novel of this kind to the screen emerges. Firstly, the 22 other combatants are barely developed at all; Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, in focusing almost exclusively on the game, managed to explore the 42 kids in all of their complexity and angst, yet here, they are mostly aggressive, shockingly game survivor-types. The film never deals with them as people, and indeed, youngsters, having to confront their mortality; they are instead cardboard cutouts, yet perhaps this is more a fault of the source material than Gary Ross’s work here.
Furthermore, expected problems abound once the film has to figure out how to depict the savage violence endemic to a predicament like this. Ross makes the lazy and unimaginative decision to resort to shaky, almost incomprehensible photography to obscure the blood and gore, making it a surprise that anything – let alone the 8 seconds needed to secure a 12A rating – had to be cut at all. It’s frustrating to watch, and Ross denies himself the chance to come up with some creative shots to disguise the violence in a clever, satisfactory way.
Once the intense opening fights take place – after which almost half the roster are dead – things slow down and we’re saddled with some questionable set-pieces which don’t really work. An overnight siege in a tree seems silly and forced; Katniss flees from her pursuers into a tree, so they decide to wait her out, yet somehow lack the foresight to sleep in shifts so they can easily kill her when she finally falls asleep. The film fleets between this sort of bone-idle, manipulative plotting, and some more jarringly absurd ones later on, as CGI animals materialise quite literally out of nowhere, in what is easily the film’s worst moment (and one which, I imagine, must be explained much better in the book).
Still, it is the drama and the suspense that keeps the film chugging along; Lawrence and Hutcherson are well-cast as the leads, displaying the believable awkwardness that a doomsday scenario like this would doubtless create. We are invested in who will make it, and what their ploy – to pose as a couple so that the Games’ sponsors will take pity on them – will mean for the end-game. Supporting players meanwhile camp up their parts as is necessary to amplify the rich-poor divide, and Woody Harrelson is a particular hoot as a former Hunger Games champion-turned-mentor.
There are some certainties about this film; it will almost definitely be a big hit, we will see more adaptations of the books, fans of the novel will probably enjoy its seeming reverence, and the uninitiated members of the target audience will likely get a kick out of it too. Its appeal might be a little more trying on older viewers not so patient or prepared to accept its contrivances (or its hokey CGI dogs), but it delivers the basic goods with a little food-for-thought as garnish. Derivative and overlong for sure, The Hunger Games still has just enough bite for teens likely to find Battle Royale a little too unwieldy.
The Hunger Games opens in the UK and US on March 23rd.