The Hunger Games
What It Is
In the mornings, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) heads out to hunt. She makes her way out of the cottage she shares with her mother (Paula Malcomson) and little sister Primrose (Willow Shields), past the fence marking the “District Boundary,” into the woods where she shoots squirrels and birds. A determined provider for her family, she still finds time to imagine another sort of future with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), where they might live somewhere else and not feel so burdened day by day.
But, as soon as The Hunger Games begins, their hopes are dashed, for Katniss must volunteer to participate in the Hunger Games, an annual television ritual wherein pairs of young people from 12 districts must fight each other to the death, in order to win much needed food for their families and also, crucially, to entertain the masses, who range from careless and wealthy to poor and desperate: only one contestant survives. Introduced each year by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the show is hosted by the loudly artificial Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and managed by gamemaker Seneca (Wes Bentley). It’s wildly popular in this post-apocalypsish-warzone, that is, North America now called Panem, and the kids who participate are called Tributes, in a verbal sleight of hand to make them seem courageous rather than coerced.
The movie, based on the first of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of YA books, introduces all this information by way of an opening crawl and some awkward expository dialogue. It’s not long before Katniss and a fellow District 12er, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are delivered via speedy-train to the Capital City, where they’re cleaned up, fed a bit, and advised by onetime Games winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). And then they’re sent off to their most likely dire fates: “May the odds always be in your favor,” smiles the icky-pink Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), insinuating, of course, that no odds at all are ever in their favor. That is, unless the Tribute comes from the First District, whose denizens almost always win: because they’re rich, they have “sponsors,” viewers (and relatives) who ensure that even during the competition, they’re well equipped, well-nourished and hydrated.
The film follows the book’s plot, mostly, as Katniss becomes a fan favorite by dint of her sensational intro (courtesy of her stylist Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz), as well as some storylines developed during the show (sometimes accidental, most often arranged by Seneca, who has a squad of computer programmers conjuring wildfires and gnarly beasts). One story has her romantically linked with Peeta, which bothers Gale (watching TV back home) but makes other viewers “like her.” This last is key, Haymitch says more than once, because the show’s fans will pay for extra food, medicine and weapons that will help you win.
It’s no accident that this aspect of the show recalls for you those sentimental backstories and big-smiley interviews on American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, game shows where viewers vote on whether contestants stay or go. As Katniss learns how to survive and fight she also learns to manipulate her audience. This means that in order to win, she must lose at least part of her integrity.
Why It’s Fun
Katniss is a terrific character, sensitive and generous, fierce and wily. She’s an ace with her bow and arrow, strong and smart. As such, she’s a serviceable antidote to, say, Bella of Twilight. Though both girls find themselves caught between two objects of affection, Katniss needs no man to define her or give her a sense of identity. That is, until the show producers decide that the “star-crossd lovers” storyline will sell, and so encourage her to pair up with Peeta.
The relationship between Katniss and a black girl Tribute from District 11, Rue (Amandla Stenberg), is film’s most touching, even if it only lasts a few minutes. As Katniss plays something like a mother to the younger girl, Rue is clever and resilient, and saves Katniss’ life more than once. Their mixed-race partnership is striking, too, compared to the alliances formed by the other kids (all white) who behave like entitled bullies.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of Collins’ books may well be pleased, as the movie includes so many of the plot elements and characters intact.
At the same time, newcomers might appreciate the relative lack of violence and darkness: the movie’s Katniss doesn’t narrate in first person, and so you’re not privy to details of her schemes, misery, and frustrations (the movie also leaves out the section in the book where she nearly dies of dehydration).
Other viewers may be moved by the film’s various themes and plot strands, including the critiques of a severely divided class structure and reality TV in general.
What To Be Aware Of
The plot premise involves killing young people for entertainment purposes. This may inspire conversation with younger viewers.
The camera can be very hectic: even quiet scenes feature mobile framing and close-ups of faces in earnest upset.
Katniss and Prim’s father died in a coalmine explosion, remembered in a short, rather abstract flashback.
All of the characters’ deaths are televised but we only see a couple. Following one character’s death, her district community begins to riot in protest, expressing their anger that their children’s lives are being wasted to entertain other people — and residents of District 11 too. They attack TV equipment, food storage units, and other facilities, the sort of havoc usually wreaked by repressed and frustrated communities, until they’re violently beaten back by Peacekeepers, who come with hoses along with other weapons. Among other things, the scene evokes violence committed by police against Civil Rights protestors, images recorded by TV cameras in the 1960s.
The film includes several scenes where young people hunt and fight each other: they use weapons including knives, swords, rocks, bricks, bows and arrows, and their own desperately flung fists and feet. These scenes sometimes result in injury and dead bodies, though the bloody moments are brief and the violent acts tend to be contained by their brevity on screen, and also the careening camera movement. The image cuts away from violence more than it shows it.
Haymitch first appears drinking, that is, poring and consuming alcohol and behaving as if he’s drunk.
8 out of 10
The Hunger Games
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland
US Premiere: March 23, 2012
UK Premiere: March 23, 2012