The Hunger Games Review

The film adaptation of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games makes for an entertaining and captivating film, but almost in spite of itself. A tale about youths pitted in a murderous contest as symbol of fascist and aristocratic rule will inevitably have scenes of violence, and yet director Gary Ross seems to have done whatever he could to minimize the impact of such scenes by editing the action into poorly cut flashes, drowning much of the film's audio in an uninspired score, and stripping all but a few characters of any real development. Instead of an emotionally charged story about love and loyalty under duress from all sides, we're left with one strong central character surrounded by people the story insists are important but that it never really takes the time to develop beyond silly archetypes. It may be an entertaining 140 minutes, but far too often it's painfully shallow and poorly filmed and packed to the brim with familiar faces in the hopes we won't notice.

In response to a suppressed rebellion across its 12 districts, a manipulative government institutes an annual competition where a male and female teen from each is selected by lottery and entered into a deathmatch. 24 contestants, or "tributes", enter, and the contest ends when only one remains. To spare her young sister whose name was drawn in the lottery, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an expert archer, volunteers to take her place, and along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), train under the supervision of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravityz) to maximize their chances for survival going into the battle. When the games begin in the large wilderness arena, Katniss finds herself isolated but with a few familiar faces popping up here and there to help her escape the hunting party of competitors who've banded together in a vicious, bloodthirsty clique.

Many more details fill in the cracks of that story, and while they shine a good deal of light on how Katniss's family history of tragedy acted as the crucible to make her into such a self-sufficient, the same isn't done for Peeta Mellark. It's a gross oversight in the film's development of the character as he's portrayed here as either a traitor or helpless and feckless competitor whose only true ability is hiding. Yet, we're supposed to see the worth that the ever compassionate Katniss sees in him, based on a constantly revisited, singular scene of generosity from their mutual past. It's enough to help us understand why she's thankful on some level, but so many of his other actions or total lack thereof earlier on without any other history for the character to rely on makes it impossible for the audience to sympathize with Katniss's empathy for the guy.

The lack of any real development for the Peeta character becomes more of a problem when you consider the three other supporting people in Katniss's life: Haymitch, fellow contestant Rue, and her hometown sweetheart (Gale). Haymitch is shown constantly talking with "sponsors" to have supplies dropped in to help Katniss in dire moments and Rue tends to her wounds when she's knocked out for a few days. They might not be deemed as important as Peeta based on screentime, but Haymitch's contributions and the fall out from Katniss's caring for Rue make them ten times the character Peeta ever is. In fact, Peeta is closer in importance in The Hunger Games to Gale, whose role at the start is to give Katniss some semblance of teen romance and offer some foreboding thoughts on rebellion, but then that part of the story is sidelined with little more than the occasional glance at Gale looking forlorn as he watches the games on television. The interstitial scenes of Gale don't add any humanity to the Katniss character, they just come across as unfortunately comic portrayals of an actor doing his best to look worried.

If it's any indication as to how poorly those scenes succeeded, the otherwise enthusiastic audience around me actually laughed whenever the scene flipped over to Gale for an emotional check-in.

One of the biggest potential criticisms to be levied against a film incarnation of The Hunger Games is that violence is somehow worse when seen and not read about. In some sense that argument might be true, but Gary Ross's direction of the film essentially neutralizes that line of thinking. Sure, we see one teenager snap another's neck, and that's brutal, but it's nowhere near as bad as it could have been. In the most violence-intensive moments in the film Ross decided to cue up the score so as to drown out almost all of the diegetic sound. Whereas in any other action film we would have been offered a very visceral cracking sound and maybe even been shown the dead look in the victim's eyes as they fall to the floor, Ross has minimized the violence noticeably. Which brings up an interesting point: should he have done so?

That self-censorship may have helped The Hunger Games maintain its PG-13 rating and thus lure in the young adult demographic to which the book catered, but it does so at the expense of the overall message of anti-fascism. In toning down the brutality it mutes the horror of what the government of Panem is truly subjecting its citizens to. We see the radical disparity between the classes and the victory of skills learned through necessity over those learned for supremacy, but the horror of the games themselves is downplayed and it's because for the most part Ross portrays them as an extended intense game of king of the hill, and not as a tool used to suppress a people. Instead, he cuts away to scenes between Donald Sutherland and Wes Bentley (as the two men running the games) discussing the value of the games as a tool of population control. The severity of the games could do that without the exposition, but that's not what we get here.

Gary Ross's The Hunger Games sacrifices thematic elements in order to maximize a love story weakened by an underdeveloped Peeta and downplay the violence, and yet it's still worth a watch.

"The Hunger Games" opens March 23, 2012 and is rated PG13. Action, Drama. Directed by Gary Ross. Written by Gary Ross (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel). Starring Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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