The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games ★★★½

“The Hunger Games” is the atypical franchise starter in which the set up is far more engaging than the more action-driven meat of the story. That’s because of its terrific dystopian premise, similarities to a certain Japanese cult film notwithstanding. The idea of a horribly misshapen society forcing its youngest to partake in a savage ritual to keep the masses occupied with grisly entertainment is an immensely unsettling one. Once the so-called tributes, two from each of the 12 districts in the state of Panem have been selected via public drawing, they are paraded in front of an ecstatic crowd in the capital city. They are pampered, clothed and fed and for a few days treated like celebrities. It’s an elaborate ceremony to keep the public content and the victims busy and awed long enough to forget that they are about to be sent into the arena to butcher each other. At which point the film is let down by its execution, thanks to some frustrating choices in capturing the fighting and extensive, not exactly riveting stretches during which our heroine tries to avoid running into her opponents in the woods. Nonetheless, I liked it more than when I saw it in theaters back in 2012, which might be because I had read the book right before. When you’re busy making comparisons, it’s hard to appreciate what’s in front of you without analyzing every change or omission, usually for the worse.

That first hour from valiant Katniss Everdeen volunteering to take her younger sister’s place in the 74th edition of the games to stunning the crowd with her blazing outfits, being blindsided by her fellow tribute Peeta’s confession of his feelings for her during an interview and finally taking the elevator into mayhem is an excellent buildup of anxiety. This is a world that is inherently wrong. When children are offered up to slaughter each other it’s because the government knows how fragile their grip on power truly is. To inflict such horrors upon families every year reeks of desperation. Their methods suggest that they are well aware that the publically televised slaughter is the only thing stopping another rebellion from breaking out. And it certainly doesn’t help that as played by Donald Sutherland, President Snow completely lacks the charisma that authoritarians cunningly employ to convince the masses that life would be so much worse without them in power.

We get to meet the characters that populate this broken society early on, and they range from porcelain doll come alive Effie Trinket, a propaganda mouthpiece for the virtues of the regime in the vein of unhinged Nazi zealot Magda Goebbels, to the lone previous District 12 champion Haymitch Abernathy, the kind of alcoholic who drinks heavily in his first appearance to label him as such and then never touches another drop again, because he needs to be lucid for the rest of his involvement. He might be a cynical jerk, but his insights prove valuable to Katniss, who manages to get her compassionate costume designer Cinna on her side and even charms master of ceremonies Casesar Flickerman, a perpetually grinning, giddy Stanley Tucci. As for Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, they are both well cast and effortlessly grow into the characters they transform into in the face of odds that are most certainly not ever in their favor. The Reaping is a particularly effective moment, built up to with brutal tension. When Prim’s name is read, Katniss’s face slowly turns into a mask of sheer terror. And when Peeta is announced as the male contestant, his reaction is marginally more stoic, but you can see that he might as well just have woken up from a nightmare to an even worse reality.

I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed the first hour. And it’s that goodwill that made me overlook many of the shortcomings in the actual Hunger Games part of “The Hunger Games”. Gary Ross was a three-time Oscar nominated screenwriter when he got the directing gig, but his resume didn’t include any entries in the action genre and it shows. The camerawork is almost nauseatingly shaky, making it difficult to keep following the events on screen during the more hectic moments. I’m not sure if Ross is answerable for that, or his cinematographer Tom Stern, best known for his frequent collaborations with Clint Eastwood that do include, which is worth noting, two war films. The use of handheld cameras allowed them to smokescreen some of the more explicit brutalities being committed during the initial storm on the Cornucopia, but I call bullshit on that. You should have known better when you decided to adapt a book explicitly named for a tournament in which teenagers and children are forced to stab and shoot each other. Not to mention the two particularly ghastly death scenes that are on pretty full display here, namely a girl being stung to death by a swarm of lethal wasp mutants and a guy getting mauled by a pack of even more lethal dog mutants. So don’t tell me you had to make your most intense action scenes visually incomprehensible, because you thought a few more drops of blood might not go over well.

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