by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN Contributing Writer
The Hunger Games
Opening March 23
I am a fan of author Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy. I find them to be a compelling allegory about the abuse of power and the price of achieving personal freedom and feel that the novels' examinations of what the cost of sacrifice and revolution end up being are lessons well worth revisiting. Most of all, I find main character Katniss Everdeen to be a heroine whom young women everywhere should strive to emulate, and unlike her contemporaries displayed on reality television and in the pages of most young adult fiction (I'm looking at you, Stephenie Meyer), this is a female role model I'd be proud to have my own nieces grow up wanting to be like.
I can't say I felt going in to my press screening of The Hunger Games that director and co-screenwriter Gary Ross (Collins and Breach filmmaker Billy Ray also co-wrote) was the right man for the job. I love his scripts for Big and Dave and feel Pleasantville is one of the more underrated classics of the past 15 years, but his major Oscar nominee Seabiscuit never did a heck of a lot for me, and the thought of him trying to meld his more uplifting sensibilities with Collins' darker thematic approach didn't seem like a good fit.
I was wrong. His version of The Hunger Games, while not perfect, is probably as magnificent as I could have hoped. No matter what some will say, no matter how hard they try to make an argument that a PG-13 rating dilutes the material and that he should have been more aggressive with the film's more violent and nasty turns, the truth of the matter is that the sheer emotional weight of the scenario has been gloriously retained. There is no softening blow, no lessening punch, and the sight of children being forced to kill children for the entertainment of the privileged few and the continued subjugation of the downtrodden masses is every bit as sickening and as destructive as it deserves to be.
The movie is set in a future world where America has been undone by some sort of ecological crisis, ripped apart from within by strife, poverty, and warfare. Renamed Panem, the country has been separated into 13 districts, with the Capitol ruling from the center. During the last uprising, District 13 was destroyed while the other 12 were subjugated. In order to show their dominance, each year the Capitol stages a brutal pageant where one boy and one girl, aged anywhere from 12 to 18, are randomly chosen to compete to the death, and their gladiatorial battle is broadcast to the nation as both spectacle and as warning as to where revolution can lead.
This is the 74th year of these Hunger Games, and in District 12, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has volunteered to compete after her 12-year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields) has her name called. She is quickly taken from her mother's grasp and sent to the Capitol with unlucky fellow competitor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son who shows Katniss a mysterious bit of kindness. The duo are mentored by former winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a drunken lout who long ago gave up any pretense a conscript from his district would have the needed skills or attributes to potentially follow in his victorious footsteps.
It's more sprawling and ambitious than this, of course, but to say more would potentially ruin the surprises contained within. Granted, as this is a trilogy (to be split into four chapters, as Lionsgate has already announced that the final entry, Mockingjay, will be split into two parts), figuring out who survives this survivalist made-for-TV battle isn't particularly difficult. But how does she get there? What sacrifices must be made? What are the moral complications for someone who doesn't want to be a puppet for the Capitol to remain true to her inner beliefs? How are seeds of revolution sown? What is it to be turned into a symbol when all you want to do is live up to a promise made to a crying little sister?
These are the questions haunting Katniss as she propels herself onward, feigning teenage love for Peeta when the boy she believes her heart belongs to, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), is back at home looking after her sister and mother. She must use her hunting skills, honed in the off-limits wilds surrounding her homestead, to search out and destroy a different kind of game, taking her humanity to its breaking point as she ends lives, protects others, and seeks revenge for what she perceives as inhumane wrongdoing.
Lawrence is spectacular. She's in more or less 90% of the scenes, forced to steer a sprawling, 142-minute epic almost singlehandedly. Her depiction of Katniss is entirely genuine, fully lived-in, and complexly realized. I felt her struggles, both internal and external, throughout the picture, and in many ways this is the Winter's Bone Academy Award nominee's most incredible performance yet. There's no way this movie would work as well as it does without her, and while it's early, and while the subject matter doesn't normally lend itself to accolades, I'd go out on a limb and say she's sensational enough to get a second Oscar nomination.
Director Ross rises to the occasion, though things aren't completely perfect - the washed out blue tones of the Districts, filmed with handheld herky-jerkiness, can get a bit tiresome; some of the CGI effects, especially in the Capitol and showcased during the events preceding the actual Hunger Games, aren't as well realized; and the seeds for the Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle aren't particularly well-planted. But for a film this long, not once did I ever feel bored. Ross allows for the impact of given situations to fall across the viewer like a sledgehammer, two poignant moments in particular - neither of which I'll go into - bringing me to honestly earned tears.
Will fans of the books respond more strongly to this than the casual viewer might? Maybe, but that doesn't mean newcomers won't find themselves swept along by the chaos and calamity all the same. Do those who dismiss the film as nothing but a rip-off of Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale have a valid point? No, not really, and while I don't completely buy Collins' assertion that she's never heard or seen that film before, her material is more based on ideas present in Greek mythology and Biblical theology than it is anything else.
For my part, I'm still in awe just how much I was blown away by The Hunger Games. Like all great literary adaptations, it remains faithful to its source material but isn't beholden to it. Ross, Collins, and Ray have created a cinematic story that fits our time and place with devastating eloquence. It lived up to my lofty expectations, in many ways surpassing them, and it's clear to me that the odds are definitely in this series' favor. I can't wait to see where the filmmakers deign to take things next.
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