So… I watched ‘The Hunger Games’

Since my last post was kicked off by how bad my viewing experience of The Hunger Games was, I figured I should probably slam in a review here… It’s mostly poached from my work review, but I’ve made some tweaks.

One of my friends pointed out that on the cover of the novel of The Hunger Games, Twilight Saga Stephenie Meyer was one of the people chosen for a “Wow-this-is-awesome-blurb”. Comparisons have regularly been drawn between The Hunger Games and Twilight, which is pretty much the most unfair thing you could do. To Twilight.

See, while it is definitely the next massive book-to-movie franchise and is kicking ass and taking names at the box office, The Hunger Games is a whole differernt kettle of fish. Stop the comparisons to Twilight and Harry Potter. But do go see the film.

You know the story by now. The ruling Capitol requires two teenage “tributes” from each of the 12 outlying districts to fight to the death in a televised battle known as The Hunger Games. Katinss Everdeen jumps in as a volunteer to stop her 12-year-old sister from being taken in as tribute from District 12 and – along with the baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) – is shipped off to the Capitol to be poked, prodded and preened for competition against other, highly trained competitors from the rest of the country. There they go into the arena to fight until only one survives.

The only help they have is in the form of their “support” team: their mentor, drunken former victor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson); the shrill and prim Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) and their stylist, the calm and brilliant Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Once they get into the arena, all relationships have to be pushed aside as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) tries to fulfil her promise to her sister to win the Hunger Games and come home to District 12.

The script was co-written by the novel’s author, Suzanne Collins, and so is largely faithful to the book, which should delight existing fans and bring in legions of new supporters. Sure, some of it is different – there was uproar when it was revealed that it is Prim that gives Katniss her mockingjay pin, for example – but the cuts make it cleaner, and the source material has been stripped down to ensure maximum action in its 164-minute running time.

A nice departure from the novel’s first-person view means that we get a chance at behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Games’ control room – where the arena is manipulated to ensure optimum bloodshed – and a look at the other viewers of the games, from the gaudily clad citizens of the Capitol to the ragged inhabitants of the remaining Districts, providing moments of brutal self-reflection in our voyeurism of the Games. However, to the film’s detriment, the script strips out much of the spark of rebellion and utter distaste for the Games that provides the impetus for the next two novels. There are halfhearted attempts at being like “Boo, this is bad” – but it never feels positively horrifying. [And more on that later!]

Jennifer Lawrence (I’m unashamed to say she is one of my girl-crushes) stars as Katniss and provides an incredible performance in a film that rests squarely on her shoulders. As Katniss, Lawrence is steady, focused and calm – while at the same time being vulnerable and completely unworldly.

She is ably supported by a cracking cast of actors – Hutcherson is amiable as Peeta, and the leading duo have an awkward chemistry that seems natural and delightfully adolescent. Completing the much-lauded “love triangle” of Katniss, Peeta and fellow District 12 citizen Gale is hunk-du-jour Liam Hemsworth, who in the novels is a beacon of morality and rebellion but in the film has little to do but smoulder – though, smoulder he does well.

Harrelson executes his role as drunken Haymitch nimbly – although tragically, some of Haymitch’s best moments from the book and his utter disgust at the Capitol have been excised from the script. Instead, Haymitch largely becomes a grumpy parody – although his transformation into an able mentor to his tributes is beautiful in its subtlety. Rounding out the crowd from the Capitol are the ever-delightful Stanley Tucci as the Games’ MC Caesar Flickman – all smiles and electric blue hair, likeable enough but still part of the “machine”; Elizabeth Banks in a scene-stealing role as Effie and Lenny Kravitz as the calm-in-the-storm Cinna. And, in the arena itself, mention must be made of the beautiful, wide-eyed Amandla Steinburg as Rue – whose moments on screen with Lawrence provided some of the most incredible moments of the film.

One of the film’s greatest challenges was to bring to the screen the gruesome deaths of a large group of teenagers in a way that would still keep the age rating low enough to include a record-breaking audience (in the US The Hunger Games carries a PG-13 age rating).

Ross makes liberal use of quick cuts and careful edits to hint at the characters’ gruesome deaths – and gruesome deaths there are by the bucket-load: wasps, bricks, spears, arrows, hand-to-hand. It provides what Vulture’s David Edelstein describes as a “slaughterfest for the whole family”. However, these edits mean that somehow the impact of the deaths of these children – for children they are – is often lost. With one or two exceptions, we’re never left reeling at the sheer brutality of the Games. It’s not that I want to see a 12-year-old’s guts spread across the screen – but it falls prey to the old adage of “out-of-sight”.

Ross and his director of photography, Tom Stern, employ a combination of largely hand-held shots to maximise the first-person view and create a sense of disorientation, which may be unpleasant for some, and incredibly tense, lingering close-ups at pivotal moments of the film. The forest arena of the Games – where the latter half of the film is set – is absolutely beautiful, the scenery at odds with the horror it serves as a backdrop for. Added to that are some incredible make-up and costumes – in particular, Katniss and Peeta’s outfits for the tributes’ parade – and a powerful score that often lapses into long periods of silence.

In short: I loved it. I’d go see it again. And no, for the last bloody time, it’s not “Just like Twilight“!

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