The Hunger Games (2012)
While the Twilight and Harry Potter series sparked the craze of young adult fiction novels in the early 2000s it was The Hunger Games that took that adult part seriously. Yes, the later Harry Potter series appealed more to older teenagers, but the original audience for those books grew up with them, with the style of the books progressing with them. Suzanne Collins, much like the late Andre Norton, instead endeavored to write solid science fiction stories that would appeal to the 16 to 20 age group.
I will be the first to admit that I am far outside any of the demographics she was going for. Some of the better books made for young adults can definitely be enjoyed by adults as well, and that is certainly the truth with The Hunger Games. However, the series was also aimed toward young women. It is strange that I would even be interested in something like this, especially since the idea of a dystopian society having children be forced into mandatory competition by a totalitarian government is nothing new. There is already a popular Japanese movie (itself based on a novel and a manga), Battle Royale, about just such a thing, and it's undeniable that The Hunger Games bares more than a small resemblance to an early Stephen King novel (published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym), The Long Walk.
Still, what makes The Hunger Games interesting is that the other works I've mentioned focus on the main event itself, giving us only the barest minimum idea of what the society is like or even why the events happen. Here we have some history, even if it is quite murky: due to several natural and manmade disasters, a good part of the coastal United States, and other parts of North America, were devastated. At some point in the past a new government arose, building an opulent capitol city in what was Colorado while dividing the rest of the population into districts to then exploit for mineral, agricultural and other resources. The districts unsuccessfully rebelled, leading to a war that included a limited nuclear exchange. The new state of Panem arose from the ashes and, to punish the districts, the Capitol demanded that two children from each be sent every year to fight in the Hunger Games, a televised event where they fight and kill each other until only one remains.
At the time we meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) it is just prior to the Reaping in which Peacekeepers (Panem's military enforcers) arrive along with representatives from the Capitol to draw the names of the those who will represent District 12 in the 74th Annual Hunger Games. When her sister Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen, Katniss volunteers in her place. The male chosen is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of the local baker. District 12 is a coal mining district, one of the furthest from the Capitol and consistently impoverished. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) introduces Katniss and Peeta to the decadent lifestyle of the Capitol, while Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is tasked with mentoring them.
The Capitol by this time is the height of decadence, not even bothering to hide its dependence and exploitation of the districts, of which President Snow (Donald Sutherland) thinks is justice for what he calls the Treason. Katniss and Peeta, along with the tributes from the other 11 districts, are trained for two weeks and paraded around like royalty before being let loose in the arena to fight each other. While expecting things to go as usual, President Snow becomes more concerned as Katniss's actions toward a fallen tribute and willingness for self-sacrifice unintentionally sew the seeds of unrest.
The first time I saw this I liked almost everything up to the Hunger Games themselves. Part of the problem was the filming - a lot of it relied on handheld camera shots, a number of them out of focus or not concentrated on the action. I still don't think that was always the way to go; if director Gary Ross really wanted a documentary feel, there are other ways to achieve that. Some of the motion blur probably helped keep this from an R rating since, as a modern PG-13 film, it does push the envelope a bit. While I still find that part of the movie to be the weakest I don't mind it as much. Despite the first movie working its way up to the event it is really a build-up to bigger things that would show up in the next movie.
The reason I like everything prior is because the audience is shown the disparity in the society without having it hammered into them. I wish I would see this in a lot of films that take place in real historic periods, where characters would behave like the world around them and not with the modern sense of having to shove our values into their world. The values of Panem are quite removed from ours, with a society that doesn't really have an analog. Even Imperial Russia was largely the last remaining feudal society, with central power reserved for the Tsar but the local landowners and royalty holding sway in rural areas. Here it's a situation in which the majority of the men work in a specific profession, and they see but little of what they put out; the government takes it all for the use of citizens in the Capitol, leaving most of the districts with little in the means of fuel or food.
It is also an interesting insight into how evil can flourish. The citizens of the Capitol live in an insular society, thinking that the games are an interesting distraction from their usual boring lives. Unless being involved in government administration, few have any actual jobs, as everything, from clothes to power to electronics, is supplied by the districts and arrive at the Capitol for the pleasure of its residents. It's not that they turn a blind eye to the suffering; most of them are not even aware that suffering exists. The only outright oppressors - at least consciously - are President Snow himself and the willing military commanders, mostly out of District 2. It's quite different from something like Star Wars, where in fact getting rid of the Emperor just leads to other military leaders popping up trying to keep the Empire going in one fashion or another. Collins managed to create the rare world in which taking out of the head of state means the state no longer exists.
There is still enough history left vague in order to be able to add on to the story if desired without contradicting much of what we have seen. It is that deep and rich, with many questions to be answered, that I still think getting to the games themselves after all that buildup is a let-down, as now it is a situation in which there is only two outcomes - Katniss and Peeta win, or only Katniss wins. There is really no choice in the matter, so the tension present in a more ensemble cast like Battle Royale is not there. What I did enjoy was that neither Collins, nor Ross (who also cowrote the screenplay) fall into the "chosen one" trap. Katniss is good with her bow, but often freezes when she puts too much thought into it. In many cases she survives by mere luck, as many of her choices are ones that are completely counterintuitive. Her taking the time to memorialize a friend that is killed may play on the hearts of the people of the Capitol, and get her potential sponsors, but it is practically suicidal when there are still Tributes roaming around that trained their whole life for the Games.
Peeta, though he is supposed to be a main character, is poorly developed, and ends up just playing a reverse damsel in distress role. We get more character development from Cato (Alexander Ludwig), one of the volunteer tributes who is framed from the beginning as one of the bad guys, in 30 seconds than we do out of Peeta in the whole film. Josh Hutcherson unfortunately ends up being just another doe-eyed, slightly effeminate and non-threatening love interest. Liam Hemsworth plays Gale, Katniss's actual love interest at the beginning, but does nothing else but stand around looking moody or disappointed. As for Jennifer Lawrence, I can kind of understand why she hasn't had a whole lot of major roles since this. She is good, but she went from independent films to a sudden blockbuster film, and then to playing Mystic in the later X-Men movies. Almost anything that she did prior to The Hunger Games is pretty much forgotten, and efforts to change that by starring in stuff like Mother! hasn't succeeded. Still, she is what the movie needed to play Katniss.
I think I may enjoy The Hunger Games more now because of the second movie in the series, which I still think is the best one. Knowing what comes up and how this fits, and treating it as an introduction to the world of Panem, gives it a bit more significance. However, it is still a great achievement for a movie that was given the quarter of a budget of many failed properties, and since a lot of its imitators have fallen by the wayside I think it stands out more now as an achievement than it did at the time it was released.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Time: 142 minutes
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland
Director: Gary Ross