It is rare that a book series that is aimed at young adults, addresses themes as effectively as The Hunger Games Series attempts to do. While the books have the trappings of a young love story, they are much more dark than might originally appear. The world in which these characters live is actually one of brutal fascism, designed to benefit one group at the expense of the rest of the world. The back story of a rebellion that failed is the groundwork for a set up of a merciless contest designed to bring the defeated to their knees repeatedly each year. None of the original combatants still remains, but their descendants will bear the burden of the combat in this dystopian story. The movie made from the books harkens back to storytelling of earlier science fiction films. This movie has action and some dramatic visuals, but what it mostly has are some big ideas and an actress and character that we will want to follow.
When I read the Hunger Games I was impressed with how moving some elements of it were. I visualized the sacrifice that the main character was making and from then on I was hooked. There are several strong moments in the film that bring those emotions to home immediately. The fear and courage that comes at the reaping ceremony does exactly what it needs to. We have a heroine who steps forward not out of pride or fear but out of love. The kind of self sacrifice that the fascists in charge may ultimately rue. Speaking of Rue, there is another character that is important to the story. Our lead identifies with another contestant, one that reminds her of her vulnerable younger sister. Katniss, the hero of this story develops the kind of empathy that might lead to trouble for the hierarchy of the existing social order. We don’t get to know most of the children who are being forced into this death match, but there are times when we can see that many of them have the qualities that suggest they have not accepted being stepped on for seven decades. While they are not yet rebellious they do have questions and needs. Certainly there are cutthroats among them, but that is to be expected. What is surprising is the hollowness of each victory over another one of the tributes. When there is glee, it is almost always a show for others, on their faces, when alone there is despair.
The movie has the pacing of a traditional science fiction narrative from the fifties or sixties or seventies. It is not frantically forcing us forward from one scene to the next. Characters are given time to respond to events and process them. We focus only on two main characters, but their story is the backbone of the suspense in the movie. For example,we don’t see the whole flashback that plants the seeds of their relationship all at once. It plays out in moments revealed over a stretch of time. The romance does not blossom from the first but is tentative and perhaps not even real. The battle is not staged continuously, but in starts and fits. We keep the point of view of our heroine and are not invited into multiple scenes of the others managing alliances and resources. While we sometimes see shots of the viewers and managers of the games, they are usually brief, and the story of the will of the two leads is what moves us into the last conflicts. In the book, the political forces are much more in the background but in the film they come forward more clearly. The role of President Snow in playing out the games is beefed up and benefits from the casting of Donald Sutherland. He can play rogue, snake , or charmer with the best of them. His voice carries both venom and sincerity at the same time, marking him as a more important character than we might believe from this first story. Katniss does not learn the politics of the game quickly, but in time we can see Jennifer Lawrence’ facial expressions convey a growing wisdom. For the climax to work, we have to believe she has figured out the way politics work in this futuristic world. She is not an invincible foe who conquers all comers, she is lucky and clever, and ultimately has the biggest heart of anyone on the screen, even if she tries to keep it hidden.
For almost an hour we get a slow build to the game at the center of the story. Like films of old, we are given small amounts of information along the way. Everything is not clear from the beginning but we get what is needed by the time we require that information. There is a dramatic visual look to the movie but we are not lingering over that look. The odd dress and manner of the residents of the Capital, are not shown to provoke a reaction from the audience, they suggest a culture that has gone to lengths to find diversion from the reality of their empty existence. The idea is to contrast the lifestyles of the dominant Capital residents with those of the subjugated districts. The inequities that exist here are not a result of hard work and enterprise, but rather the consequence of the power that is wielded so brutally against the other districts. The bread and circuses for the district residents, divert them from paying much attention to the social system that they benefit from. The forced sacrifices of the outer districts, reminds them of the order of things. The screenwriters and director however have sown the seeds of future stories by showing that there are limits to how far a people can be pushed. Katniss shows compassion and honor for one of her rivals, and it suddenly becomes clear that they are not all enemies, and they all have the same oppression to face. Just as there is an emotional surge when Katniss steps forward to take the place of her sister, there is a nicely timed emotional eruption when she honors a competitor with a salute that undermines the point of the games. The game designer gets justly blamed for a number of mistakes in the proceedings, but having no seven second delay built into the broadcast means that the control of the emotions is actually in the hands of the competitors. Katniss figures this out and uses it to her favor in several spots.
The one major flaw in the film from my point of view is the use of a shaky cam technique in the set up in that first hour. Usually that tool is used to build energy into action scenes, and to make the choreography of a fight scene pop. Here, it is used to suggest energy and tension in the slow build segment that comes prior to the tributes arrival in the capital. I thought it took us out of the story. It is rarely used in the more traditional action sequences in the rest of the film. There were a couple of chase scenes but most of the time, the camera is still as Katniss, Peeta, and Rue develop in the battle. The more traditional editing and camera work help in the confrontation with Cato, the antagonist from another district toward the climax of the film. Other technical aspects of the film work better. There is CGI but it is very limited to the Capital City shots and a couple of the challenges the contestants face. It is relatively subdued compared to most modern science fiction based stories. The music sounded like it fit the coal mining district that our leads come from. It would not be out of place in an episode of “Justified” or in the film Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for last year, “Winter’s Bone”. The supporting performers are well cast and give just enough energy to the proceedings without going over the top. Stanley Tucci is both exploiting and supporting the combatants in the role of host for the games. Toby Jones who was in the other Truman Capote film a few years ago, and was excellent in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” just last fall, could have been over the top, but he is used just enough for us to get the sense of entitlement of the Capital City viewers. Wes Bentley’s mustache and beard do most of the acting for him, but there is a nice expression on his face when the outcome of the games becomes clear and he must face his consequences.
You know whether or not this movie is for you, if you read the books and respected them. This is not the soap opera that so many young adult stories entail. It is also not the twelve round mortal combat bloodsport that an exploitation film maker might turn this into. It is a work that reminds me of the original “planet of the Apes”. It moves slowly forward, steams out information and character as needed, contains several action sequences that are not overdone, and asks some pretty important questions about us as human beings. I liked this movie a lot and I think I respected it even more. My guess is that you will as well if you take a chance and watch it with an analytical mind as well as a romantic heart.