The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America now known as Panem. 13 Districts rose up againts the Capitol but failed in the attempt, leading to the destruction of District 13. To keep the remaining districts in check, the Capitol decreed that each district must offer a male and female “tribute” to complete in an annual televised death-match known as the Hunger Games, where only one victor may emerge. Now from District 12 comes Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who volunteers as tribute to save her younger sister Primrose from certain death. Katniss must now survive in this brutal death-match, as well as discover whether her feelings for fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson) are genuine or simply a cover-up for the media frenzy crowd of the Capitol.
Right from the beginning, the filmmakers knew their target audience: the fanboys/girls of Suzanne Collin’s highly popular trilogy of books. And with that in mind, I would have to admit that they did a pretty decent job in making the film. The film’s plot stayed true to that of the source material, and the changes were reasonable enough in order to streamline the narrative flow of the film. Simply put, this is one of the best franchise openers for a film based on a young adult novel surpassing even that of the first Harry Potter and Twilight.
The Good (minor spoilers ahead)
Hands down, one of the film’s strength lies in its screenplay. I applaud the screenwriters (including Collins herself) for capturing the novel’s plot right on. Granted there were some changes (the final encounter with the genetically enhanced wolves might be disappointing with the purists, as well as the “upbeat” ending of the film), but these are changes done in order for the film’s narrative to be smoother. Unlike Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where the film moves at a snail’s pace because of its slavish devotion to the sources material, this particular film manages to remain faithful to the source material yet at the same time, manages to escape the pitfall of being too loyal to the book. This may be due to the fact that the book’s narrative (despite being in the 1st person perspective) is “cinematic” enough that adapting it would be easier as compared to Harry Potter.
Second up is the casting. Jennifer Lawrence plays the role with such ferocity as the strong-willed woman hunter Katniss, yet she gives a sense of vulnerability in the more tender moments of the film (particularly in a scene where she honors a fallen tribute). Josh Hutcherson’s performance, on the other hand, reminds me of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Josh’s acting chops are definitely one of the best, and it’s good to know that he’s finally getting his big break in Hollywood. The supporting cast do their jobs well, particularly Woody Harrelson who plays Haymitch Abernathy, a former victor of the Hunger Games; and Stanley Tucci, whose over the top performance as game emcee Caesar Flickerman, is effective that you’d want to knock his teeth out whenever he smiles or laughs his guts out.
The Bad (minor spoilers ahead)
I have some gripes, however, about the cinematography of the film. Granted, while the film is rated PG-13, this is still a particularly violent film. A tribute breaks the neck of his opponent, the protagonist unleashes a legion of wasps at her enemies (resulting in the death of one), a tribute is impaled with a lance, and one is the subject of a feeding frenzy by genetically enhanced wolves. While these scenes are enough to warrant an R-rating, director Gary Ross manages to dance around the ratings by shooting the film using hand-held shots. Thus, we don’t exactly see the carnage we’d expect from a genre such as this, but because of the “grittiness” of shooting the film guerilla-style, the violence of the film, ideally, should be highlighted. I’m sorry to say that this is not the case with The Hunger Games.
The action sequences, as I recall from the book, were good. They are clearly described, and engaging to an extent. The film’s action sequences, on the other hand, are uninspired. They are generic, there are too few, and are diluted by the hand-held shots. I actually felt dizzy at times as I was desperately trying to see what was going on on screen. Yes, the shaky-cam was too shaky that I could hardly see anything on screen. Granted, the action set-pieces aren’t particularly bad (the best being the wasp hive sequence, the tension of the scene was great), but the effect was diminished with the hand-held cameras.
Another reason for the film’s uninspired action sequences might be the director himself. Gary Ross is known for his dramatic films, and for him to tackle an action packed novel such as The Hunger Games might have new to him.
Regarding the changes done to the book, it might not be too distracting for non-fans but it definitely was for the purists (take note however that these simply nitpickings). I watched the film with fans of the books and one of them hated the “happy ending” of the film (as one of the fangirls said, “The ending was shit! How could they do that?!”). I read the book and I was expecting the bleak ending but I actually didn’t mind the film’s ending. But all I’m saying here is that (as with film adaptations of books) there would be some changes which the fans will hate. I personally didn’t mind the changes as I understand that there are some things which will not translate well on screen.
For a film which highlights a violent death-match to have it’s violence neutered by the hand-held cameras, this almost seems like a death sentence. However, that major fault is salvaged by a relatively spot-on adaption of the novel’s plot, and the inspired performances by its cast. Despite the director’s limitations with the action genre, I still feel that he had a deep respect for the material and he sought out to give something special for the fans of the book. I’d say he did a decent job. And like what I said about the books, The Hunger Games is definitely not THE best film out there, but it certainly fulfilled its end: to entertain the audience enough, despite it’s limitations.
Oh, and for those fans who hate the film unreasonably by calling it a rip-off of Battle Royale, it is a huge disservice for both material to be compared to each other as they are two completely different works. I acknowledge that Battle Royale is possibly the more superior film, but that would be tantamount to comparing Harry Potter with The Lord of the Rings. Both are the “same” in the sense that both are in the fantasy genre, that’s it. The same goes with The Hunger Games and Battle Royale: both movies are the same, in the sense that both have a death-match in it, that’s it. Other than that, both are completely different from each other.
4 stars out of 5.