The latest book franchise to have a crack at Hollywood has arrived. The Hunger Games is going to roll the dice, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, rather than the misfires like Percy Jackson and The Golden Compass. Suzanne Collins' trilogy of young adult novels certainly have the ammunition to impress audiences, but can it find the right angle for the adaptation?
The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future in a nation known as Panem, which is divided into 12 districts. Due to a rebel uprising against the Capitol years ago, the districts were punished with the creation of the games. Every year, one boy and one girl from each district is chosen by a lottery to compete in a Battle Royale style event to the death, with only one victor. The games are eagerly watched by the nation in a big brother inspired arena, littered with cameras. This story follows Katniss Everdeen, a young girl from the poverty stricken District 12. She volunteers for the event in place of her young sister. Katniss is then taken to the Capitol to impress sponsors, train in the art of survival and finally enter the arena in a battle to the death.
It's an intriguing world that is explored within the film with lots to take in from the start. A teenage Orwellian approach along with criticisms of our own world and lifestyle send a strong message to it's target audience. Director Gary Ross has adopted a realistic style for this film rather than stretch to the fantastic, which fits the tone of the books. The first act is the most engaging with some powerful moments early on when Katniss is taken from her family and as we learn the true brutality of the games. The music is used sparingly, particularly around the action scenes to emphasise the savage nature of the competition to great effect.
Lawrence, who gave an outstanding performance in Winters Bone back in 2010, builds upon an impressive debut. Taking a much loved, strong female heroine and adding all the qualities you'd expect to Katniss. She's ruthless and demanding when she needs to be but vulnerable and inexperienced at times. It's a performance that the film pins it's hopes on and she doesn't disappoint. Other stand out performers include Woody Harrelson as Katniss' mentor, who along with Stanley Tucci's chat show host provide some lighter moments in a generally intense film. I was also impressed with Wes Bentley who played Seneca, the games master. It was intriguing to see how decisions were made behind the scenes and how the games operated. A storytelling technique that wasn't utilised in the books.
However, the film does not get everything right. The camerawork was often handheld, keeping the camera lively for the dramatic moments but many of the action sequences were frustratingly limited. The shots were so tight it was hard to make out what was actually happening. Ross' lack of action experience was apparent here or perhaps they wished to avoid certain graphic images to ensure they were given that ever important 12A rating.
Several of Katniss' relationships felt underdeveloped, particularly with her mother and her friend from home, Gale. There were many characters crammed in with not enough time to spend on all of them. Throughout the film, exposition is shoved in your direction so you can keep up with the pace of the story. This was often provided by the two commentators sporadically updating us on the predicament our hero was in. Sticking with these commentators consistently would have been a stronger approach and given the feeling of watching a TV show, rather than jumping between the games and the outside world. Seeing the world react outside of the games was a good idea to detract all the focus from Katniss but the execution was poor. Several scenes felt crowbarred in just to ensure Sutherland had more than five lines.
On balance, The Hunger Games is an enjoyable film and a solid adaptation of an exciting book. The setting and style of the piece put it above the average sci-fi blockbuster, plus it will appeal to it's young adult audience. Even though the odds were not in its favour they've delivered a worthy movie, just not a spectacular one.
EXTRAS ★★★ The Blu-ray comes as a 2-disc package. The first disc just has the feature itself, including a terrific 7.1 soundtrack. It's also a stronger, 15-certificate cut of the film – the theatrical release, along with the DVD, is a 12. Not a lot was removed, just the blood and gore being trimmed from the kills. Disappointingly, there is no audio commentary along with the film. The second disc has the bonus features, consisting of the eight-part documentary The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games (2:02:00), which runs almost as long as the film itself; the featurette Game Maker: Suzanne Collin & The Hunger Game Phenomenon (14:05); the featurette Letters From the Rose Garden (9:08); the featurette Controlling the Games (5:50); the featurette A Conversation With Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell (14:31), whihc is a chat between film critic Mitchell and the film's director and co-writer; the featurette Preparing For the Games: A Director's Process (3:00), in which Ross talks about preparing to shoot the film; the full-length Propoganda Film from the main feature (1:34); a poster gallery; and a photo gallery. Apart from the terrific making-of documentary, it's a pretty average collection.