Disclaimer: I am coming to this as an outsider of the Hunger Games franchise. I have not read the books. I do not know the extent of the back story. This is about the movie, and about whether it works as a stand-alone film without knowledge of the source material.
I have always been a fan of the ‘horrible-death-game-to-help-maintain-an-evil-regime-in-a-dystopian-future’ genre. I count The Running Man, Rollerball, Battle Royale, and Series 7: The Contenders as some of my favourite films. So, I was more than a little dubious about a 12A title taking on the same premise. Without time to read the book (beyond other things I have been reading the Eisenhorn trilogy and couldn’t face parting with it) I went into the film relatively blind.
So let’s start with first impressions. The film starts with the pastoral setting of District 12, and our hero Katniss Everdeen spending her time hunting. It’s a horrible, grim, gritty place. The games are subtly put into the setting – a nightmare of Katniss’ sister, Prim, and a mention from a hunky love interest who looked like a young clone of David Boreanaz for instance – which was refreshing. It was well-handled and the message was put across without bludgeoning the GRIMDARKFUTUREGLADIATOR message into the viewer.
Unfortunately the setting jars a little soon afterwards. In the middle of this run-down imagery, we suddenly get a view of, well, these guys:
And this woman:
So we’re hit with two different worlds; the colourful, vibrant dystopian society and the gritty, pale outlands. I found (and it might just be me) that when these two worlds combined, it didn’t quite work. The guards looked out of place in District 12, and the jump from the very real opening setting to the CGI-laden capital city was a bit difficult to grasp.
Having said that, I loved the capital. The build-up to the games proper was handled superbly. It was easy to grasp, even the difficult notion of the sponsorship idea – that each of the ‘tributes’ could help their odds in the games by getting sponsored by the rich and powerful watching the games themselves. I felt the film really came into its own during these parts – the training sessions, the interviews with the absolutely brilliant Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson mentoring Katniss and Peeta, Lenny Kravitz giving the tributes a cynical look at how to succeed. The suspense in the build-up to the games was wonderful. You really started to understand the world, the decadence, and the way in which these games helped define the society. There were satirical jabs at reality TV, celebrity, and the like, in quite a similar way to The Running Man and The Truman Show. It takes a long time to reach the games proper, and it’s worth it – for me, this glimpse of a well-structured fictional society was the best part of the film.
But the show must go on, and the Hunger Games themselves had to start. Unfortunately this is where the film falls down a little. It’s not really anyone’s fault – as all of the areas where the film fails were inevitable. The idea of The Hunger Games itself is difficult – a book series for young adults about a world where kids will potentially have to kill each other in a variety of horrible ways. There was no way the filmmakers were going to be able to show the real horror and brutality of that premise without losing a 12A rating – and with it, the key demographic of the film itself.
So, instead of seeing these kids kill each other, we are instead shown shaky-cam fight scenes, cut-aways, and other tricks to help imply that something brutal has happened without really showing it. It’s a shame, because I think that this damages the overall film. Given how well the previous scenes were handled – showing the stakes that were held, the potential horrors that the heroes would have to face – the Games themselves were a major let-down. You put the brutality and intensity of Drive into this film and it could have been a classic.
That said, there is nothing the filmmakers could have done about this, so it can’t really be held against anyone in particular apart from the censors.
To sum up, the film is worth watching. There are some fantastic performances, and even within the young cast no-one really lets the film down. The plot is solid, the setting is great, and visually (at least most of the time) it works. It is unfortunately let down by a weak second half and the fact that killer mutant dogs do never a good finale make. Definitely an enjoyable film, but maybe not worth the amount of praise it’s been given.
PS – And I’m sorry if this insults anyone who is a fan of the books, but why do they all have bloody stupid names? There seems to be very few deviations from current English language aside from them, so why did they feel the need to make everyone have a modern variation of a current name (I’m looking at you, Peeta and Haymitch).