I'll admit it. I was wrong.
Having been underwhelmed by the film's trailer, I fully expected The Hunger Games
to be a disaster. While the film is no masterpiece, it does sit comfortably in the upper echelon of films based upon young adult novels and clearly targeting the young adult population. It's unlikely to win over all film critics, but The Hunger Games
should be that rare film to weave together both box-office success and critical acclaim.
The Hunger Games
takes place in an unspecified future, a time in which the United States of America has become a land known as Panem divided into 13 districts centered by an extraordinarily powerful Capitol. Years before the movie begins, there has been a rebellion in Panem by the districts against the Capitol. The rebellion was crushed, and District 13 destroyed. As part of the peace settlement, the 12 remaining districts must participate in what is known as "The Hunger Games." Annually, a lottery is held with two tributes between the ages of 12-18, one male and one female, chosen to represent each district. The competition is a "battle to the death" that also serves as Panem's highest rated televised event. 23 participants will die, the survivor is declared the winner.
In this 74th version of "The Hunger Games," 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected as the female tribute from District 12, however, her 16-year-old sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers to take her place in an effort to save her from what would appear to be inevitable death. Katniss will be joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), whose role in The Hunger Games
reverses what is often the female stereotype as the weaker of the twosome. The two journey to the Capitol to train with Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). Katniss quickly becomes a fan favorite, her boldness and style eliciting admiration from the television audience much to the dismay of the President (Donald Sutherland) and the delight of the event's organizer (Wes Bentley) and the event's commentator (Stanley Tucci).
The Hunger Games
joins the cinematic echelon marked by the presence of the Harry Potter
films, though it seems unlikely to experience success on the level of those films despite most assuredly having something for everyone. While some will likely compare the film to the Twilight
films with their strong central female figure, The Hunger Games
is a vastly superior film and the central role of Katniss is devoid of the puppy dog antics of Twilight's
Jennifer Lawrence cements herself as one of Hollywood's best of the up-and-coming actresses, following up her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter's Bone
with what is a rather amazing and satisfying performance in what could have easily been tossed off as nothing more than a popcorn flick. Because of Lawrence's performance, The Hunger Games
is much, much more than just a popcorn flick.
While I'll confess my own cynicism regarding the film, I really should have rested more comfortably given that the film is directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit).
The film is largely scripted by Suzanne Collins, who penned the book (the first in a trilogy) upon which the film is based, along with Ross and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach).
In so many writer's hands, The Hunger Games
would have become a cartoonish, Twilight
lite. With this production team and cast, however, The Hunger Games
rises considerably above its potentially corny potential and surfaces as an emotionally resonant, intellectually satisfying and downright entertaining film that should easily be early 2012's most popular pic.
The action really kicks off with what amounts to a PG-13 rated bloodbath, a tamer version of what Collins created on the written page but, in the hands of a talented director like Ross, a version that still works convincingly without becoming traumatizing for the film's younger target audience. The opening battle also essentially eliminates the non-necessary players in the battle, almost half (sort of a "to the death" "American Idol).
The cast is uniformly strong here, even those players who are ordinarily disappointing or nothing more than eye candy. In addition to Lawrence's stand-out performance, Stanley Tucci is absolutely top-notch as the event's darkly entertaining broadcast host. While Josh Hutcherson isn't quite up to Lawrence's standards, he provides a nice contrast to her bold and stylistic performance with a more earthy, relaxed take not that far removed from that of Sean Astin in the Lord of the Rings
films (but more convincing!). Liam Hemsworth, who has seldom ever been more than eye candy in a film, at least manages to hold his own here despite clearly being the film's weakest link. Amandla Stenberg also shines as Rue, while Woody Harrelson again leaves an indelible impression as Katniss's drunken coach.
Tom Stern, a frequent collaborator of Clint Eastwood, lenses the film quite nicely while James Newton Howard's original score hits all the right emotional and action-packed notes to companion the film to perfection. Phillip Messina's production design paints a portrait of the future that feels authentic and natural. In fact, the entire production team deserves kudos for a look and feel that captures both the sci-fi aspects of the film and its more humane foundations of ethics and morality.
Parents should be cautioned, at least modestly so, that The Hunger Games
by its very storyline is about kids killing kids and particularly sensitive young children may find its action disturbing despite its not being particularly graphic. While the film is appropriately rated at PG-13, it would likely be considered a stronger PG-13 rating.
The Hunger Games
isn't a masterpiece, but it is far better than what most likely expected from the film and is that rare film to successfully blend commercial viability and critical success. It says much about Jennifer Lawrence that she tapped into the heart and soul of Katniss and, as a result, The Hunger Games
is a film where both style and substance work together to create one of the year's best action flicks so far.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic