Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) - Gary Ross

Picture the scene - dragged from your poor, wasteland home and thrown into a diversely landscaped arena with twenty-three other teenagers, you're forced to murder each other live on television to save your life, all for the sporting entertainment of the rich bastards of the Capitol.  What exactly is going through your mind?

It's a question that neither Collins's novel nor Ross's film begins to answer.  But this being a story aimed at young teenagers, it doesn't explore the intense psychological trauma this sort of event may ignite.  In this respect, Collins is tied to the limitations of a teenage novel, a slave to her audience.  However, in both novel and cinematic form, The Hunger Games is a riveting fantasy saga.

It's the latest set of teenage novels to be adapted for the cinemaCollins's work may not be the most original of concepts (though it was conceived without any prior knowledge of the Japanese sci-fi Battle Royale), or the most beautifully written.  But her simple, direct writing style allows the gripping narrative to become the full focus.  It's an addictive read and this film adaptation is likewise addictive viewing.  Following the novel, the story is set in Panem - a dystopian, post-apocalyptic version of North America controlled by a cruel, totalitarian government.  The land is divided into twelve isolated districts filled with poor industrial workers and at its centre lies the Capitol, a place for the rich, greedy and ostentatious.  Each year the Hunger Games take place as a stark reminder to the people of the war years before that tore the country apart and put the poor in their place.  Our protagonist is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenager from District Twelve who volunteers as a tribute to take part in place of her younger sister.  Slowly she realises that the gladiatorial games are not just about fighting spirit but about popularity and manipulation.  Most importantly, they're an opportunity to begin an uprising that could overthrow the government for good.

It's a story that can be interpreted in different ways - as an attack on dictatorship, on class divides, on celebrity culture and reality television.  Really, the subtext is pretty shallow but whilst adults will see a missed opportunity, younger viewers will be sucked into Collins's fantastical realm - particularly the futuristic elements of the Capitol, like a hyperbolic version of our own society.  The film stays faithful to the novel, carrying its compelling narrative, melodramatic love triangle (that is still miles more subtle than Twilight's) and lack of a deeper, darker subtext.

The Hunger Games is a long but well-paced film, with lots to pack in to its exposition.  Even then, many story arcs have been minimised, thus subsequently losing impact.  Once the games begin, though, the film becomes a non-stop action thrill ride.  Much has been made of the brutal violence and although some moments are subtly played, the film can still shock.  Undoubtedly, this is a visceral interpretation of the novel's events.

Fans will appreciate the detail that has gone into the conception of Panem, garishly coloured, yet frightening and imposing.  To mimic the novel's first person narrative, the film cleverly uses sight and sound to put us in the position of Katniss, though the frequent use of hand-camera does become dizzying.  Additions such as the game commentators give us an extra insight into occurences behind the scenes, but further use of this would have been welcome for fans and newcomers alike, as the film generally doesn't expand on the novel with any significance.  James Newton Howard's score, part orchestral, part electronica, part Americana, lends a sense of nostalgia, shifting from wonder to intimate emotion.

It's so often difficult for characterisation to live up to the expectations of fans, but The Hunger Games is a success.  What the script lacks in personal detail, Lawrence makes up for with stern resolve in her portrayal of Katniss, though she's equally comfortable when emotional cracks begin to show.  No other actress could conceivably play the part.  Other characters are given far less screen time, though their depictions are suitably varied and colourful - from Liam Hemsworth's Gale, to Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, Lenny Kravtiz's Cinna and Elizabeth Banks's Effie.  What's missing are the intricate relationships, but the film could never replicate what the novel offers without serious cuts to the plot.

And ultimately, the exciting, involving and intense story is The Hunger Games' biggest asset, which Ross's film successfully replicates on the big screen.  It may add little to the mythology of the book but this is a solid, if safe, adaptation - a cinematic Easter treat that's easy to totally absorb yourself in and lasts far longer than a creme egg.