Hunger Games

Faithful to its source material, Suzanne Collins’s book “The Hunger Games,” Gary Ross’s eagerly-awaited screen version is a thematically provocative and emotionally engaging tale, which sustains interest throughout its running time of two and a half hours.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=49706

What You Need to Know: www.emanuellevy.com/comment/hunger-games-what-you-need-to-know/

Collins’s best-selling novel, the first in a trilogy of books, has sold over 26 million copies in the U.S. alone. Embraced by a massive global readership, the novel was featured for more than 180 consecutive weeks on the N.Y. Times bestseller list since its publication in September 2008. (The other books in the series are “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay”).

Fans of the book will not be disappointed with this credible rendition that, quite remarkably, does justice to the dense texture of the book, its multiple sub-plots and narrative threads, and both lead and secondary characters. That said, the big-screen version is much less graphically violent than the book is, probably a result of the restrictions imposed by the PG-13 Rating. (The material really calls for an R-rated picture).

In fact, “The Hunger Games” the movie may be too loyal to the literary source, resulting in a consistently good (and in moments truly great) picture that somehow lacks the overall coherence, visceral emotionalism, and technical brilliance that have marked Gary Ross’s previous efforts, specifically the visionary “Pleasantville” (My favorite Ross movie).

But these are minor complaints compared to the level of ambition and execution in most of the film’s departments. It may not be an exaggeration to claim that, as of today, “Hunger Games” is the best movie to come out of Hollywood in 2012, a movie event (and event movie) which, for a change justifies the pre-release hype and the promise to be the most anticipated picture of the season.

Lionsgate should expect huge rewards on opening weekend, March 23, and though critical response should be strong and mostly favorable, here is a picture that is almost critic-proof—at least in the short run. It’s safe to say that there has not been such “hot” and “cool” youth picture since the “Twilight” franchise.

I think that most of my readers are familiar with the book, though I can’t assume that fact. And so, I’ll briefly describe the rich plot of this sci-fi, which despite futuristic settings manages to speak to issues and youths of our times, thus rendering the film relevant and significant in more ways than one.

Context: Every year the Capitol of the Panem nation forces its twelve enslaved districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games, a perverse punitive strategy for an uprising that had occurred in the past, as well as an effective intimidation tactic used by the government.

What increases the impact of the Hunger Games is not only their massive scale, but also their degree of exposure and reachability. The events, in which “Tributes” must fight with one another until one survivor wins, are a nationally televised spectacle, watched intently by the masses.

Much has been written about whether or not Jennifer Lawrence was the right choice to play the protagonist, and judging by her performance, I think the filmmakers have made the right decision.

Lawrence (who won a much deserved Oscar nomination for her part in the indie “Winter’s Bone”) plays Katniss Everdeen, a bright, tenacious girl around 16, who volunteers to enter the games in her younger sister’s place. Rendering a commanding, multi-shaded performance, she offers s a sympathetic character for youngsters to identify or empathize with.

In order to succeed in competing against highly-trained Tributes who have prepared for these Games their entire lives, she is well aware that she must rely on her natural instincts, but she is smart enough and realistic enough to know that she also needs to acquire skills from an experienced mentor, who happens to be the drunken former victor Haymitch Abernathy.

It’s not just a matter of winning—it’s a matter of sheer survival–if Katniss is to return home to District 12. This survival calls for bold actions and impossible decisions, which place survival against humanity, safety against trust, and life against love and friendship.

Upon entry, Katniss, who’s a miner’s daughter, and her new co-Tribute, the baker’s son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, who was so good in “The Kids Are All Right”) are taken into custody and whisked to the Capitol. Thrown into radical yet glamorous makeovers and grueling training, they prepare themselves to be pitted against the ruthless “Career Tributes,” those who come from the wealthier districts and have prepared for these Games their entire lives.

Unfolding through Katniss’ subjective perspective, the tale depicts an unsettling dystopian future, defined by what seems to be a series of contradictory values: It’s high-tech and apocalyptic, glitzy and primal, seductively dangerous and yet realistic.

It helps that the screenplay was penned by director Gary Ross, book author Suzanne Collins (who’s also credited as executive producer), and writer Billy Ray. Replete with sharp observations about the politics of democracy and authoritarianism, the text emphasizes the various dangers of fascism. After decades of chaos and war, the regime suppresses the people in a harsh and decadent dictatorship.

The Hunger Games represent the Capitol’s twisted idea of mass entertainment as well as a constant and continuous proof of its total control over the populace, while at the same time giving the famished citizenry slight hopes of survival.

Inevitably, while watching the Hunger Games, we are reminded of other intense, brutally violent historical gladiatorial competitions (variations of “bread and circuse”), except that these games are done on live TV, in front of millions of viewers, thus their fast and dangerous impact.
The tale is also effective as aromantic triangle of sorts, positing Katniss between two vastly different boys, Gale,her fellow hunter and best friend, heartbroken when she departs for the Games,  and Peeta, District 12’s male Tribute, who is smitten with Katniss and harbors secret feelings for her.

In general goal and feel (but not visual style), Panem is a dystopian future realm, influenced by such seminal sci-fi authors as George Orwell and Margaret Atwood, yet Collins and Ross have succeeded in making this milieu specific to adolescents and young adults and relevant to the very current and contemporary state of American culture.

 

As he has shown in his previous work (the Oscar-nominated “Seabiscuit” included), Ross can tell a big epic tale
without losing the intimate details of the story, which accounts for our ability to connect emotionally and viscerally with the characters’ journeys and ordeals.

It’s a pleasure to report that “The Hunger Games” is a youth-oriented tale, which is intelligent, intriguing, and ambitious in the best sense of these terms, an entertaining picture that doesn’t pander or speak down to its primary target audience, and one that despite its futuristic setting serves as a timely and effective parable of the way we live now, specifically our obsession with pop culture, celebrities, and Reality TV.

Cast
Katniss Everdeen – Jennifer Lawrence
Peeta Mellark – Josh Hutcherson
Gale Hawthorne – Liam Hemsworth
Haymitch Abernathy – Woody Harrelson
Effie Trinket – Elizabeth Banks
Cinna – Lenny Kravitz
Caesar Flickerman – Stanley Tucci
President Snow – Donald Sutherland

Credits

Production: Color Force, Lionsgate
Director: Gary Ross
Screenwriters: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray’ based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Robin Bissell, Suzanne Collins, Louise Rosner-Meyer
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: Philip Messina
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Editors: Stephen Mirrione, Juliette Welfling
Music: James Newton Howard
Executive music producer: T Bone Burnett
Special effects supervisor: Sheena Duggal