Directed by: Gary Ross
Premise: An adaptation of the book by Suzanne Collins. In the future, North America is divided into impoverished districts and each district provides a teenage boy and girl to participate in a competition in which they fight to the death.
What Works: The Hunger Games is a dystopian future story. This is a popular and thoroughly explored story genre but this film does it about as well as any other. In fact, The Hunger Games is most distinguished by its story world and filmmaking design. Many science fiction and fantasy films of recent years, such as Alice in Wonderland or John Carter, have a look that is too perfect and clean, perhaps due to the extensive use of computer graphics. This has the effect of making the characters and locations look plastic and sterile. The world of The Hunger Games retains an organic appearance. Much of the film takes place in the woods like survivalist stories such as The Grey or in the districts, which look more like the sets of westerns like Deadwood. Even the scenes that take place in the affluent quarters of society retain a mussed look; the make-up and costumes have a decadent texture that draws attention and underlines the contrast between the superficial culture of high society and the savagery underneath. The credibility of the story world is also maintained in the action scenes and the casting. This film’s subject matter is very violent and in other hands this could easily reach a hard-R level of carnage; the filmmakers have found ways of dealing with the disturbing subject matter and shooting it in such a way that conveys the barbarism of the violence while not dwelling on the bloodshed. The violence retains its reality because it does not succumb to the video game sensibilities of many other action films. The violence also works because the film is well cast with fine young actors. A number of the contestants are very young and the picture does not shy away from putting them in jeopardy or making them murderous, which also supports this film’s credibility. And the success that The Hunger Games has with its design pays off in the film’s agenda. The Hunger Games has a lot in it that is smart and relevant; this story is in part a commentary on celebrity, media, capitalism, and politics. Although none of these things are explored fully, the film does lay the groundwork for future installments.
What Doesn’t: The Hunger Games does have shortcomings in its characterization. Although the contestants have an authentic look, there is not much to them. Few of the contestants are characterized except for the Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and her district mate, played by Josh Hutcherson. The film includes flashbacks intended to flesh out their background but these scenes don’t really reveal anything and their love story is never convincing. The intent is to create a bond between these two, who have a sense of morality and honor, and contrast them with their competitors who are given over to the kill-or-be-killed values of the games. But the film misses why Katniss has a moral consciousness but the other contestants do not. It is a flaw that is unlikely to occur to the viewer on the first showing but it is there and exposes a weakness in the storytelling. And that leads to one final consideration: parents ought to be aware of what this film is about before taking their kids to the theater. To be fair, The Hunger Games is about as violent as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (and it has the same PG-13 classification) but it is more intense than the promotional materials let on.
Bottom Line: The Hunger Games is a smart and entertaining film. It lacks characterization but as an action film it delivers and as the first chapter of a proposed trilogy it establishes a compelling story world and may lead to better films to follow.
Episode: #382 (April 1, 2012)