In the dystopian, totalitarian nation of Panem, a wealthy capital city rules over an impoverished nation of districts. As penance for a previous rebellion, every year sees each district forced to enter two adolescents to participate in The Hunger Games competition; the winner receives an extensive cash sum and a chance to live amongst the wealthy, but the event is a death match where only one can survive. Elements of the film’s narrative and allegorical concerns result in an amalgamation of the likes of The Most Dangerous Game, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, The Truman Show, Series 7: The Contenders, and Battle Royale, but The Hunger Games successfully stands on its own as a gripping entity with an interesting world courtesy of Suzanne Collins’ source material, the first in a hugely popular series of novels.
Regarding that last work to which it may bear numerous superficial similarities, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale has one arguable strength over Gary Ross’ film in that it bears some more memorable, effective staging of its combatants’ fighting. That film, however, leans more towards dark comedy, and is otherwise an undernourished, un-engaging effort when it attempts dramatic potency that frequently falls flat. Hosting an unpleasant melodramatic tone, far too many one-dimensional characters that barely register prior to their demise, and clumsy, overt delivery of its social commentary, Battle Royale is unsatisfying in numerous ways, especially so in comparison to strengths of The Hunger Games that serve to counter that film’s flaws and limited execution. Firstly, Ross’ screenplay, co-written with Collins and Billy Ray, makes the wise choice to not try building the film around every contestant, preventing potential wallowing in inanity that Fukasaku’s effort is so frequently prone to. Present in nearly every sequence, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is the main focus here, in addition to fellow District 12 competitor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The character development of its select protagonists, which also include Woody Harrelson’s former Hunger Games victor Haymitch, and the emotional gratification related to their journey is one of the film’s notable highlights; Lawrence is especially great in her role, providing a little vulnerability but also an engaging, sombre determination.
A second strength of the film is also a particularly refreshing one for a Hollywood production of this type: a lack of speaking down to the viewer. Despite a primarily adolescent target audience as a result of the young adult novels, the film is not prone to a great deal of expository dialogue, or characters spouting thematic concerns outside of examples where the execution is naturalistic, satisfying and lacking in bluntness. The characters know this world already, and our understanding of it is developed through the visuals and subtle aspects of exchanges. The film provides some context in a direct fashion during the games, in which two commentators relay arena information for the television viewers of Panem; reality television is one of the admittedly obvious but deftly handled targets.
Audience manipulation in order to help one survive is a fruitful topic explored, with Peeta initiating an alleged romantic angle with Katniss in the hype machine prior to the competition, a move that will boost the favour of both of them in the eyes of the audience and the people in charge. The ambiguity of the romantic elements as a result of this is particularly interesting and innovative for a blockbuster. Regarding the games themselves, a docu-drama “shaky-cam” approach is employed to convey the monstrosity of the proceedings without lingering in graphic detail. This approach of cinematographer Tom Stern is retained through the film’s entirety. It is admittedly very jarring and awkward in the opening stretch, but very suitable and effective for the games themselves; beyond the opening, the approach becomes a lot more tolerable, reflecting well the immediacy and hostile tension of the story.
While the aforementioned lack of exposition is generally refreshing and rewarding, it does pose some occasional problems in regards to the film’s world-building. For instance, aspects of the arena are shown as prone to manipulation by the organisers, such as in a sequence when a hiding Katniss is forced towards other competitors by a sudden onslaught of fire. Later on, however, a pack of mutant dogs are brought into the action through apparent technological manipulation. The inhabitants of this world being able to create organic life is a development that is quite jarring for a viewer uninformed by the source material, since this happens without any prior suggestion of the capability beforehand and over two hours into the film’s running time. Bringing to mind further questions regarding the animals the contestants have killed and consumed during the competition, it is a case where some prior exposition courtesy of, perhaps, the Games’ commentators might have actually have been vital. Furthermore regarding the realisation of this dystopia, some of the garish hair and costume designs of the capitol residents are perhaps a bit overdone in regards to the exploration of corrupt decadence.
Despite its fictional universe lacking complete coherence, The Hunger Games is an interesting and refreshing new take on some old concepts, and a very impressive, thrilling blockbuster. One hopes the adaptations of Collins’ follow-up novels expand on this film’s successes and its effective emotional and political roots.