In the lead up to its release, The Hunger Games has been compared to the Potter franchise, Twilight, Battle Royale and even The Running Man. It’s understandable. It’s standard practice when writing about movies to use the “it’s a bit like ‘this’ meets ‘that’” shorthand to describe something new. The problem with The Hunger Games is that it completely defies that trick. It may have clear points of comparison with those films, but it would be just as fair to compare it to countless others, like Serenity or Children of Men or even leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough movie, Winter’s Bone.
While the film is thoroughly enjoyable, and intensely exciting, it actually feels much more like a serious drama than a summer blockbuster, dealing with themes of self sacrifice, mortality and rebellion in a sensitive and non-sensational way. This is supported by a very grounded, realistic feel, thanks to a washed-out look a judicious use of hand-held camera work and a matter of fact tone; even the more fantastical sci-fi elements – vast, hovering ships, medicines that can heal any wound and genetically modified, weaponized beast, are dealt with in a way that the audience barely give them a second thought.
The few moments of stylised spectacle Ross gives us are used perfectly, either to demonstrate how alien the ruling Capitol is to the world the protagonist, Katniss knows, or as a tool to emphasise her reaction to events taking place. It is also used in a wonderful, hyper-stylised sequence mid way through the movie, in a way that only works because it is so different from the rest of the film.
Performance-wise, perhaps unsurprisingly given the cast, the film is solid. Even the youngest actors, Willow Shields and Amandla Stenberg, who could easily have been the weak links given their relative inexperience are terrific. It’s become something of a cliché to drone on about how good Lawrence is, but here she carries the film spectacularly. What is really impressive is how effectively her performance, combined with Ross’ direction replace the book’s narrator. On several occasions, entire pages of inner monologue are achieved with a look from Lawrence, and a quick move of the camera.
The romantic subplot is dealt with in a much more light-handed manner than one might expect. In theory there is a love triangle in the film between Katniss and her two suitors, Peeta and Gale. In practice, either as a consequence of wanting to avoid comparisons with Twilight, or because it’s simply not all that interesting, that triangle is almost never apparent, and even Katniss’ relationship with Peeta is kept reasonably low key – which is actually rather fortuitous, as the period when we do focus on their tentative romance seems to slow the movie to a crawl.
The downside of limiting the focus on the relationship, and removing the first person narrative, is that Katnis’ behaviour towards Peeta seems at times seems irrational, and almost bipolar. Unfortunately even the Lawrence-Ross dream team can’t quite make this part work, which may leave those unfamiliar with the books a little confused.
The film also has a rather odd pacing issue towards the end. After the initial bloodbath, each tribute gets a ‘moment’ before their death – a few seconds of screen time, where we get to know them before they’re dispatched. Except the penultimate one. By this point, all the story that can be told in the arena is done, and the film has clocked nearly two hours, so ramping up the pace is justified, it is also not too dissimilar from the way the character goes in the book, it just seems a little odd to break the established format. Indeed, in the adaptation of literary narrative to cinematic narrative, this is probably the movie’s biggest misstep.
For the most part Suzanne Collins, who alongside Gary Ross and Billy Ray, adapted her own book for the screen, manages to keep in as much as possible, without any other element seeming insufficiently cinematic. In fact, some of the changes, in particular Seneca’s final scene and the handling of the mockingjay pin are, in part, an improvement on the original version. it’s a shame a handful of great bits from the book didn’t make the cut, but it’s understandable. Their inclusion would have slowed the movie down too much. There are also lots of little nods to the books throughout that offer fans a chance to play ‘hunt the Easter Egg’, but which shouldn’t be too distracting to those unfamiliar with the material.
The film’s only major flaws are in the costume and effects work. In what could have, and perhaps should have been the movie’s showpiece moment, the outfits seemed a little half-hearted. One in particular, that had it been done practically as a collaboration between costume and special effects could have been like nothing seen before, was left in the hands of an already overstretched VFX team who never quite finished the job. In fact, while most of the important effects – the subtle ones that sell a scene as real are fine, the large scale digital sets look like they needed more work. It’s no surprise it was still being worked on up until a couple of weeks ago. It would be nice if they could keep plugging away for another month or so.
That said, who cares? With a compelling story that actually has something to say for itself, and performances that sell everything perfectly, Lawrence and co could have been wearing black leotards in front of a grey background, and the movie still would have worked. The Hunger Games is a bold, intelligent and entertaining movie, and a brilliant adaptation of the book. If only all action films could be this good.