The Hunger Games

Gary Ross

BY James KeastPublished Mar 22, 2012

On one level, those adapting The Hunger Games for the big screen had to just put the book on screen and get out of the way. The Suzanne Collins novel chronicles a future America, now called Panem, divided into impoverished "districts" under the thumb of the wealthy Capitol. Each district is forced to annually offer up one boy and one girl, age 12 to 18, for a to-the-death battle amongst the 24 chosen youths, broadcast as a brutal 24/7 reality show until only one child remains.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), from the poorest district, brings her bow-hunting skills and general kickass moxie into the Hunger Games arena. The structure of the book ― from the selection of the candidates to their media-glare introduction to a massive TV audience, to the battles within the arena themselves ― reads like a prose screenplay. Its combination of propulsive plot movement and Katniss's inner strength has made it a global phenomenon.

They got much of the casting right: Donald Sutherland is creepily paternal as Capitol President Snow; Stanley Tucci is glib and oily as TV presenter Caesar Flickerman; Wes Bentley makes a memorable gaming designer (Seneca Crane); and Elizabeth Banks has the most fun as over-the-top host/enthusiast Effie Trinket. The arena kids, with only a few exceptions, are sadly nothing more than ciphers meant to represent their most superficial characteristics: Amandla Stenberg's Rue, the child-victim, and Alexander Ludwig's Cato, the privileged bully. If you're seeking nothing more than a visual representation of Collins' words, Gary Ross's version is that, but nothing more. That's where The Hunger Games missed a huge opportunity.

The film naturally loses the great advantage the book has: its ability to portray Katniss's inner life. But the film, especially given the more society-based issues raised by the next two books in Collins' trilogy, has not only an opportunity, but an obligation to expand the world of Panem beyond Katniss's head, and here the film fails utterly. With only a couple of very minor, irritating exceptions, The Hunger Games ignores the fact that this is the future's American Idol: that the culture has devolved to a point that blood sport amongst their children is considered high entertainment. When your social analysis is shallower than the 1987 Schwarzenegger film The Running Man, you've made a wrong turn.

While we are constantly told that success for Katniss (and her District 12 compatriot, Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson) depends on making a good impression on viewers, we get no sense of why or how their actions impact that impression, or how the reality show might manipulate actions within the arena for its audience. Considering that the film's climax is dependent on how the gameplay is perceived by society at large, getting no hint of the connection between the arena and the larger viewing audience is a huge misstep.

There are two exceptions, however. The first is a quick cut to Stanley Tucci's Flickerman, apparently serving as a play-by-play announcer, in order to give a piece of in-game information literally 45 seconds before it's necessary, which is clunky and off-putting. The other is a brief glimpse of another district reacting negatively to one competitor's death; it's completely without context and is never returned to.

Even taking The Hunger Games at face value ― as a straightforward reading of the book, with no greater aspirations than what Collins envisioned (she did co-write the screenplay, after all) ― the film drops the ball at two signature moments. Katniss's introduction, in which she earns her nickname "the girl on fire," should be spectacular on the big screen, but it's a dud. And the opening moments of the Games, where the utter brutality of the exercise becomes immediately, shockingly clear, is undercut by quick edits and shaky, handheld camerawork that muddles instead of terrifies. (That's the moment most affected by the film's child-friendly PG rating.)

The Hunger Games will most likely make a billion dollars, but given the direction of the next two books, filmmakers may find themselves wishing that they'd done a little more to expand the world of Panem, since that's the foundation moving forward. Those looking for a more brutal, more emotionally touching and better executed film that explores these themes should check out the recently released Blu-Ray of the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale on Anchor Bay. It's amazing.

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