In a world torn apart by war, drought and famine, there lies Panem, a society split into a Capitol and twelve separate districts. To compensate for past rebellions, each district must annually offer up two “tributes” to take part in the Capitol’s “Hunger Games”: a televised fight to the death. When her sister is chosen as one of the “tributes”, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a strong-willed teenage girl, volunteers herself to take her sister’s place. Alongside her male counterpart Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a lowly baker’s boy, Katniss enters The Hunger Games, only for them to find themselves in a situation like no other.
When struck with source material as packed with ideas as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is, it would be easy to hire a screenwriter to wipe the slate clean and come at the film version from a whole new angle. Thankfully, director Gary Ross and producer Nina Jacobson handle the material with care, even allowing Collins to contribute towards the screenplay itself. This results in an adaptation which, while furthering some of the ideas, remains respectful and truthful to the fundamental vision.
The narrative is well paced and every bit as engaging as it could be, though there’s a strong feeling that more time should have been spent in the Games than on the slow-burning build-up. And, while some of the elements that are comprehensively detailed on paper may not translate as cleverly to screen (the control room and the Muttations are two that spring to mind), there’s no denying the filmmakers’ intent to be as loyal to the source material as is physically possible. This loyalty even seems to extend to some components being scaled back or even omitted when it’s clear that there would have been no way to convey them realistically. Rather than diminish the whole by including these things anyway – think the first time Edward “sparkles” in Twilight – they always try to maintain the integrity of the material.
There’s a truthful naturalism to the proceedings that makes everything that happens extremely unsettling – despite the limitations brought on by the 12A certificate. From the quiet dread of the “Reaping”, where the tributes’ names are picked, to the all-important Games, there’s a beauty in the almost silent way in which Ross allows situations to explain themselves, rather than ramming their intent down the audience’s throat. While the violence may not be explicit or gory, it’s always brutal, and as with the rest of the film the focus is on the characters’ reactions. This is definitely something that’s key to this version’s overall success.
Like every book-to-film translation, there’s the odd annoyance that impedes complete realisation. The most obvious here is the lack of social commentary. While it’s a necessary element that permeates the entire novel, hinting strongly at both Katniss and the districts’ growing hostility towards the Capitol, it’s unfortunately largely bypassed in the film. The tensions are only briefly hinted at, with little subtlety, despite the interesting contrasts drawn between the hardships suffered by the outlying districts and the garish luxury of the Capitol (embodied in the outlandish Effie Trinket, (a masterful Elizabeth Banks) and Panem’s God-like ruler, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Inconsistencies aside, Ross’ interpretation hits the nail on the head in more ways than one. The most effective is how it accentuates the realism of the radical scenario faced by Katniss. The fact of the matter is, this is a personal journey experienced by a girl trying to do right by her family when forced to face up to a life-or-death situation. The transformation is astonishing. Not only are you aware of how much she’s developed as a person by the time she’s in the thick of the Games, but its also made apparent that she’s using her tough background to her advantage.
Lawrence, doing her utmost to ensure her first foray into the mainstream is as graceful as possible, inhabits the role of Katniss with an overwhelming presence, drawing influences from her Academy Award nominated turn as Ree in Winter’s Bone. An unlikely hero, she rises from the coal dust to prove herself a fearless and more than capable fighter – one who’s strong-willed and determined, yet clearly only resorts to violence when it’s absolutely necessary. This makes the fact that the other “tributes”, played by a handful of lesser known actors, are kept to the background acceptable and important in keeping the emphasis squarely on Katniss.
In supporting roles, Hutcherson, Banks, Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson do extremely well in their respective supporting roles. Hutcherson, in particular, proves that he’s more than capable of conveying Peeta’s calm, shining exterior, while ensuring his romantic feelings towards Katniss are entirely convincing and never cringeworthy. Nevertheless, it’s the brief scenes shared between Lenny Kravitz’ Cinna and Lawrence’s Katniss that are the most memorable in terms of emotional honesty.
The Hunger Games is, aside from a few disparities, an entertaining, thought-provoking and commendably low-key piece of modern-day filmmaking. Effective in its ability to draw an audience in through its hands-on, roving cinematography and distressing score, Ross’ interpretation does what most adaptations only dream of: enhance its source material while never blowing its contained vision out of proportion.