The Hunger Games: Film Review

The Hunger Games

Deadly entertaining and brutally fascinating.

THE HUNGER GAMES is not ‘the new Twilight’. Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling novel may have elicited the same shrieking reaction from the fans as the one often heard at a screening of the movie about glittery vamps, but The Hunger Games, a much bloodier feast than its fanged counterpart, is more likely to make people scream from pain and misery than Jacob Black’s state of shirtlessness.

That is why it is perhaps appropriate that The Hunger Games was kicked off by an agonized scream – this one belonging to Willow Shields’ Primrose Everdeen, the sister of leading lady Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as she wakes up from a nightmare. Her older sister hugs her for a while, soothes her with a lullaby and then makes for the woods, to hunt food for her family. Seeing this opening sequence it is easy to assume that Lawrence, who nabbed an Oscar nod through a similar role of a young girl providing for her poor mom and siblings in the indie flick Winter’s Bone (2010), has been caught in the typecasting trap Hollywood laid out for her. However, as the story of Hunger Games proceeds, she proves her worth as the best actress of her generation.

Child’s play
What distinguishes The Hunger Games from Twilight and gives Lawrence something to sink her teeth into is author Collins’ (who also worked on the film’s script with Billy Ray) bravery to present a war story set in the dystopian world, a country named Panem that used to be North America. Divided into one large city, Capitol, and 13 districts, Panem suffered from a revolution in its past that now caused the government to demand ‘sacrifices’ from the formerly rebelling districts. Those sacrifices, called ‘tributes’, come in the form of a boy and a girl who get assigned to kill rivals and each other in the deadly arena called The Hunger Games. This is no child’s play – living in the shadow of such brutality is enough to send a grown person shaking, let alone a child of twelve. Katniss’ decision to volunteer as a tribute in her sister’s place then becomes significant – it’s not a show of heroism, but a display of sheer desperation. And Lawrence, as predicted, nails this.

There’s an underlying unease in each and every scene as Ross gave the District 12 sequences bluish tints and pale shades. The district’s grittiness becomes even more pronounced when his camera shakes for a while to follow Katniss’ adventure in the woods. Even when we’re transported to Capitol, the unease remains as we realize how fake the electric, shocking colors of the citizens’ clothes, hair and skin are. By the time we enter the arena together with the tributes, our stomachs turn into knots because we know for sure that the lush greens and bright sky is no paradise. Ross manages to avoid an outright bloodbath – surely to maintain an inclusive PG-13 rating – but even with this self-conscious censoring, the acts of violence he offers are still a bitter pill to swallow for anyone watching the Games.

If there’s a drawback, it’s Collins’ slow narrative that tries to include everything from her book into the adaptation. While most key elements in the book, there are  still a few pieces missing, although Ross then cleverly makes up for them by going out of Katniss’ narrow POV and showing the others’. President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) reactions to Katniss’ popularity is particularly intriguing, as well as gamemaker Seneca Crane’s (Wes Bentley) and District 12’s mentor Haymitch Abernathy’s (Woody Harrelson) off-screen politicking. While Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is still severely underused in this first installment, Ross scores major points by showing a solemn scene of Katniss’ three-finger salute through Capitol’s camera following the demise of a friend. Though a slight deviation from the books, memorable scenes like these convince us that this adaptation is on the right hands.

Star bright, star-crossed
Ultimately, it still falls to Lawrence’s slender shoulders to carry the film through… luckily, she does it brilliantly. Starting from the challenge she throws at the gamemakers by shooting an arrow through an apple on a pig’s mouth until her frustrated cries in the woods, playing the emotions on her face seems to come easily to her. Her expressions are natural and she captivates in every situation. Credit, however, must also be given to her co-star Josh Hutcherson, playing Peeta Mellark. Hutcherson, a pro at his current age after a series of successful blockbusters that he have starred in since his adolescent years, shows his star quality as one of Katniss’ love interests. He’s sensitive and charismatic without coming across as week, needy or pathetic.

It remains to be seen if Hemsworth can match Hutcherson’s stellar performance, seeing as there’s not much for him to do here. But if the dramatic ending of The Hunger Games indicates anything, it’s that a love triangle will happen in the sequel and we’re up for more romantic entanglements between the three leads. Even if the sequel is not greenlit (doubtful, though, seeing as The Hunger Games has enough box office success to make the studio becomes eager for more), the good news is that this movie stands on its own just fine. It’s not just a good adaptation; it’s a scarily terrific film.

THE VERDICT Thrilling and loyal to the book, franchise opener The Hunger Games is a wonderful and universal entertainment. But will Ross and Lawrence be able to pull off Catching Fire? The game is not over yet.

Very regrettably, two things are missing from the movie that made it for the worse: Madge, originally the one who gave Katniss her mockingjay, and the Avox girl (the Avox are people whose tongues have been cut off for their betrayal of the Capitol) who served Katniss in Capitol.


The Indonesian version of this review will come out in Total Film Indonesia Issue #30, out in April 2012.

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