Simply put, The Hunger Games is a huge success – and not just at the box office. From the dark, dreary, dystopia of District 12 to the brilliantly shining, colorful, excited nature of the Capitol, The Hunger Games is a winner. Directed by Gary Ross, the film blends the two worlds seamlessly.
The film, which is based on the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, is set in a country called Panem. Using a clever propaganda film, the film indicates why every year, the citizens of the twelve districts offer up as tribute one boy and one girl to fight to the death in the Hunger Games.
It’s a dark world, which is run by the Capitol. Through controlled fear, organized restrictions of resources, and the Games, the Capitol maintains its rule without disruption. Governed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Panem is very separated. Each district is isolated, alone, and unaware of the conditions in the other districts.
The hero, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), lives in District 12. District 12 is straight out of Great Depression-era Middle America. Dark, dirty, and poor, District 12 is home to the mining ore operation for Panem. Katniss finds her solace in this world in the woods outside of the fences, where she hunts with Gale (Liam Hemsworth). We’re never sure about the true nature of the Katniss and Gale’s relationship, although their feelings for each other are visually suggested that they’re probably stronger than simple friendship.
At the Reaping (the tribute selection event), which is overseen and emceed by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katiniss volunteers to save her sister Prim, who is originally picked. Acting as a volunteer is a first for the District – something the citizens of Panem don’t overlook. Katniss’ male counterpart and tribute is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). It quickly becomes clear that everything that surrounds the Games is played up for the audience.
As Katniss and Peeta are shipped off to the Capitol, a former Games winner and mentor for the District 12 tributes, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), makes his first appearance. Haymitch initially comes off as a drunk, sarcastic, and relatively worthless mentor. As Katniss and Peeta prepare for the Games, Haymitch slowly warms to them and begins to offer nuggets of wisdom. Harrelson is a fun casting choice. He’s the visual representation of blending District 12 grit with the Capitol style, and he offers an entertaining performance steeped with humor. As Team 12 works to appease the audience, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), team stylist, rebelliously makes them visual protests to the Capitol. During the pre-interview sequence with the wonderful Games commentator Caesar (Stanley Tucci), Peeta drops the bombshell that he’s been in love with Katniss since he was a child. Katniss and Peeta are now the star-crossed couple.
All of the plot building expertly amps the tension that leads to the moment when the heroes enter the Arena. It’s here that the film hits its stride. Ross crafts a film in which children are violently slaughtered – which instills regret and discomfort in the audience. Witnessing the death of children is jarring and creates a very self-aware feeling in the audience. Just by sitting in the theater, we’re just as much of the Panem audience and the experience of the Games.
Some critics have complained of the shaky cinematography (result of not using a Stedicam), but Ross strives to show the viewer the chaotic and jarring nature of the Games. Visually, The Hunger Games is stunning. There are certainly effects-heavy shots, but they never seem out of place or fake. The set pieces for and design of the Capitol are amazing. In contrasting the dirt and grime of District 12, the filmmakers make apparent the pure decadence.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss with great resolve and restraint. Many of the moments during the Games are reflected in her eyes. The Games’ stress, sadness, anger, and fear are all honestly apparent to the audience (real and cinematic). Hutcherson isn’t as strong as Peeta but does win the audience over towards the end of the film. This isn’t his fault because his role is greatly reduced from what it is in the novel. However, this is Katniss’ story. She’s the hero, but she’s a reluctant and unwilling hero, who rises to the occasion when necessary. Smart, cunning, and aware of her situation, Katniss never takes risks that aren’t needed.
The film is the same way. The book is darker and more violent but also slower. Ross smartly balances these slower scenes during the Games with moments that let Katniss think and react to the artificial world around her.
Overall, The Hunger Games is a fantastic film. While the first book doesn’t as openly end with threads for an obvious sequel, the film very much does. With a date already set for the second film - Catching Fire in 2013 – these Games are just getting started.