With Harry Potter a thing of the past and the Twilight series mercifully coming to a close, the time has come for Hollywood to gobble up a new YA novel series for mucho dollaros. So, now we’re treated to the first chapter in Suzanne Collins ludicrously successful trilogy The Hunger Games. If like me, you started to worried about what the kids were reading these days after all that ridiculous Twilight nonsense, then prepare to breath a sigh of relief. The Hunger Games is a smart n’ action packed dystopian sci-fi vision actually worth seeing. Sure, it’s a little overlong (as all these adaptations are) and the concept is a little too reminiscent of a certain ultraviolent Japanese genre classic, but the film works quite well and will deserve the inevitable dump trunks full of cash that it pulls in this weekend.
The film takes place in one of those not-so-distant futures that is dark n’ twisted version of our own worlds. In Collins’ vision, the economic disparity has reached an insane level with the rich living an absurdly opulent and garish lifestyle in their own isolated community, while the poor are relegated to the to the rural outskirts where they live in cabins and feed on squirrels as food is rationed out in small supplies. To keep the poor communities paralyzed and placated with fear, an annual event is held called The Hunger Games. Two youths from each community are selected at random and forced into a killing spree tournament where only one can survive. It’s broadcast over a popular reality TV program that the rich enjoy as entertainment and the poor watch in panic. Our Heroine is Karniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a young girl who volunteers for the tournament to save her sister’s life. Soon she’s swept away and trained by her drunk supervisor (Woody Harrelson) to look pretty and fight hard to win the affections of the audience and garner sponsorship in the games (which means additional food, medicine, and possibly even weapons). She’s a sharpshooter with a bow and arrow and is ready to take care of herself, but since other colonies essentially raise pint-sized supersoldiers to volunteer every year, she goes through the motions of being interviewed by a blue haired TV host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) and fakes a love story with her fighting partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to gain a little audience sympathy (much to the chagrin of her Ken doll love interest from home Gale (Liam Hemsworth)). And then, as they say, the games begin.
It’s a pretty solid concept for a sci-fi/fantasy series and it’s easy to see why the film has garnered such success with young readers. The idea of the games is fairly terrifying, while the society Collins created is ripe with social satire and commentary on how popular culture exploits clueless young people for the pleasure of the masses. The material is custom made to fascinate teens with ideas n’ action and the film translates the material to the screen well, particularly in the casting. Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence is ideal casting for Karniss combining tomboy charm and physical prowess with an undeniable beauty that she never flaunts. Hutcherson is decent enough as her snotty compadre, while Hemsworth contributes some worrying cardboard boytoy acting that could be a major issue when his character expands in future outings (though to be fair, he doesn’t have much to do in this movie other than be eye candy, so perhaps he’s gotten some hidden acting chops we’ll see next time). The adult actors get to have a little more fun than the stoic teens. Woody Harrelson is a hilarious filthy drunk who grows to support Lawrence without every coming across as too uncharacteristically paternal. Wes Bentley is a fine twisted villain as the show’s director who wouldn’t look out of place stroking a silent villain mustache if he didn’t have a cartoony Satan beard instead. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks get the pure comic relief roles as two ludicrously materialistic rich folk in absurd costumes and they mug well.
The film was co-written and directed by the underrated Gary Ross, who was an interesting choice, though possibly not the right one. You see, Ross’ background is in high-concept comedies like Big and Pleasantville and he seems more interested in creating a satirical version of the rich society that than staging the games themselves. The movie spends over an hour setting up the world, which is a rather awkward structure for what is ostensibly a sci-fi action flick. It would have been pretty easy to race through all the set up in 30-45min, but Ross seems too enamored with the hilariously gaudy production design and characters to do that. Now, fans of the book will appreciate that attention to detail, but this is an action movie that seems curiously bored with the action. When the games finally arrive, the violence comes in quick bursts with little suspense. It’s shot in the shakey-cam Bourne style, which was probably a ratings decision as the story is quite violent, but you can barely see the bloody deatails to please the MPAA. All the set pieces seem somewhat tossed off (particularly in the hastily staged climax) and can often feel unsatisfying. Thankfully, the outside world that Ross is so enamored with is fascinating, so it’s not a movie killer. I just can’t help but feel the Hunger Games themselves could and should have been more suspenseful and thrilling.
Of course, there’s one other glaring issue with this movie that will also disappoint genre fans. The concept is so slavishly similar to Kinjo Fukasaku’s nutso masterpiece Battle Royale that it’s a shock Collins hasn’t been sued for plagiarism. The set up, the social commentary, and even the love stories between a few central characters feel ripped off directly from Battle Royale and that movie has none of the narrative sluggishness or perfunctory action. If you’re a fan of Battle Royale, you’ll be disappointed by The Hunger Games, which tones down the kinetic, gloriously over-the-top approach of that movie for younger, North American audiences. Still, despite that unfavorable comparison and the movie’s other flaws, The Hunger Games is still a blockbuster with a brain worth seeing. Perhaps the sequels will deepen the story beyond the superficial Battle Royale comparisons and this series will grow to stand alone as teenage sci-fi classic. If not, at least it will be a movie franchise with enough substance to be worth the marketing hype machine shoving it down everyone’s throat every 6-12 months.