This movie is surprisingly gripping and very creative. I was dreading the almost two-and-a-half hour length, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself engrossed from start to finish. The movie, it turns out, is as involving as the reality TV it seeks to expose and, at times, parody.
The world of the story is the land of Panem, what’s left of the United States in the future, and it’s bleak. In a post-civil war society, the country has been divided into twelve districts by the powers-that-be, who reside in the Capitol, which is a futuristic combination of Rome and D.C. District Twelve, where our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) reside, resembles poverty-stricken Appalachia. The starving residents of this district are coal miners. Their garb is plain, reminiscent of the Mennonites or nineteenth century pioneers. Katniss manages to overcome deprivation with her hunting skills, and the game she catches provides extra food for her family or can be bartered for the basics.
It is the eve of the Hunger Games, a bread-and-circus Roman-style spectacle in which two young people aged 12 to 18 representing each district, who are known as tributes, compete for survival in the wilderness at the behest of the leaders in the Capitol. It’s a televised fight to the death and compulsory viewing for all citizens as a way to keep them in line. The last kid standing is the victor, and receives food to last his or her family for a year as well as the veneration of this voyeuristic society. This world is so brutal that Katniss tells her hunky lover boy Gale (Liam Hemsworth), “I’m never having kids.”
A terrified Primrose is a possible contender for the survival game, and as bad luck would have it, her name is selected in the lottery. Katniss, not only older and braver but the rock for the family after her father’s death, steps forward and offers to volunteer in her sister’s stead. The powers-that-be accept, and the events’ host, a blue-haired, outlandish clown named Caesar Flickerman, played with slimy charisma by Stanley Tucci, revels in this dramatic turn of events. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is the other young player to represent District Twelve selected by lottery.
The wilderness where the games take place is in nature, and yet it’s a giant film set: cameras are hidden everywhere, and acts of god designed to destroy the tributes can be conjured with the push of a button from the control room. Suzanne Collins, the author of the popular book trilogy on which the film is based and a screenwriter on the film, has doubtlessly seen the reality show Survivor, where contestants survive in a no man’s land or wilderness, outwitting and out-maneuvering one another in order to get their hands on a million-dollar prize. Director Gary Ross introduces an unsteady camera to portray the unsettling atmosphere of the games, and he uses sound to brilliant, jarring effect.
In terms of Survivor and reality shows of this ilk, The Hunger Games speaks to the human cruelty often on display in these shows. There are some aspects of high school we never outgrow. The cliques formed in high school become the alliances formed in the wilderness during the Hunger Games, just as alliances are formed on the show Survivor, where it seems the nice guys always finish last. The Hunger Games takes mean girls and bullies to a whole new level, and this is brought into a disturbing new light when the host Caesar asks the youngest player, Rue (Amandla Stenberg), who is outfitted like Shirley Temple for the interview, “Are you a hunter?”
The filmmakers even work some elements of American Idol into the story. A very glam stylist named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) with rocking gold eyeshadow mentors Katniss on presentation so that she can capitalize on her newfound celebrity and win sponsors who will provide amenities during the games. Katniss proves to be very good at playing to the crowd, and she comes to be known as “the girl on fire,” quite literally. The special effects, while a little corny at times, play to the audience, both onscreen and off, and meet our demand for viewing dazzling spectacle and danger alike, as long as it’s from the safety of our own seats in a dark auditorium. In the end, the Hunger Games aren’t so much about the players’ lack of food but about the audience’s hunger for more, more, more.
Woody Harrelson is the other “natural born” mentor, a champion from a previous year turned loser boozer who is supposed to provide training to Peeta and Katniss for the physical, mental, and emotional challenges the games present. The best advice he can give them is to “embrace the probability of your imminent death. You know in your heart there is nothing I can do to save you.” Survival of the fittest is an understatement in the Hunger Games: it’s kill or be killed.
The Hunger Games would hardly be complete without some soapy teen romance, and the filmmakers provide it in spades with a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gabe, who pines away for her back home. Luckily the romance is never too sappy and adds to the compelling storyline. This cast has enough talent to fill the Roman Coliseum and then some. This is the role of a lifetime for Jennifer Lawrence, whose breakout performance in Winter’s Bone garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress last year. Josh Hutcherson, who was so fantastic in The Kids Are All Right, brings a great deal of heart to a role that might have been easily overshadowed in the hands of a lesser actor.
I also enjoyed the character of Rue, performed by youngest cast member Amandla Stenberg, who currently has some Hunger Games fans up in arms for all the wrong reasons: she is an African American actress cast in a role that’s described as a blonde “with dark skin” in the book. Apparently some fans would have preferred to see a white actress with lots of time on the tanning bed instead. How misguided they are.
The Hunger Games needs the diversity that Stenberg and Kravitz bring to the table. The casting still falls short in the diversity department (the Harry Potter films fared a little better). Stenberg should be recognized for the merits of her performance and the spunk and sweetness she brings to the role, not for the color of her skin. I know we’ll be seeing a lot more of this actress, and I have a feeling she’ll come through the other side of this ridiculous controversy as a leading lady.
The costumes of the Capitol citizens are garish and remind me of a combination of an amateur theater production, Baptist church ladies, disco, The Wizard of Oz, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Their over-the-top clownishness doesn’t quite seem to gel with the seriousness, grit, and drama of Katniss’ struggle, but in thinking about The Hunger Games as a send-up of America’s obsession with reality TV, they actually do fit. We are the gawking, garish audience. We are the citizens of the Capitol.
The Hunger Games ends with the audience hungry for more, more more. Can anyone say sequel?
Screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray
Reel Mama’s rating: Appropriate for ages 13 and up. When the games begin, the killing starts right away, but it’s not graphic, and the blood is kept to a bare minimum. The first televised killing portrayed is of the previous year’s victor killing another with a brick, but it cuts away before the deed is done. I have heard a lot of parents express their concerns about the movie representing children killing children. I will say that it is intense and disturbing. Whether you allow your ‘tween or teen to see the film may depend on his or her maturity level, but I will say that most teens understand that this is an allegory, albeit one of epic proportions, representing the minefield, heartaches, pain and glory of what it is to be a teenager in America today. I’d like to think most teens can handle it, but parents in doubt can pre-screen the movie and check other parenting sites for more information before making a decision.
There is some mild language.