'The Hunger Games' slips up by sidestepping the implications of its central conflict
The Hunger Games Lionsgate
Director: Gary Ross
Screenplay: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, based on the novel by Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Alexander Ludwig, Woody Harrelson, Wes
Bentley, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz and Donald Sutherland
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 22 minutes
Opened March 23, 2012
(out of four)
The Hunger Games' inability (or unwillingness) to confront the horror of its own premise
prevents it from being a great movie. Or, for that matter, an especially good one. The film
revolves around an annual event in which 24 teenagers compete in a battle to the death, and yet
that event seems to be of little consequence to the nature of their, for lack of a better word, souls.
The participants - or "tributes" - are plucked from their homes (one male and one female, aged
12-18, from each district), dressed up and trotted out for public consumption, briefly trained in
survival and combat skills, and dropped into an arena where there will be but one sole survivor.
The event is punishment for an uprising against the Capitol years earlier and a yearly reminder of
the oligarchy's control over the masses, most of whom remain in poverty.
Anyone even reading that description can see the situation for what it is, but the film too often
shies away from its depths, afraid to look into the hearts of characters presumably being pushed
to their moral and psychological limits. Throughout the film there is a persistent refusal to see
the characters as primal beings. Here they are, placed in extraordinary circumstances, a kill-or-be-killed scenario, a desperate quest for survival - you know, only themost basic instinct in all
of mankind. And yet do they behave as though their very survival is at stake? Not quite. Instead,
they behave as they are predetermined to behave before the Games even began.
The heroes remain noble throughout, virtually untainted by sin except by incidental
circumstance. And there's no curiosity about the villains, either. They're established from the
start as steely-eyed and ruthless, leaving no doubt about who will be our sole antagonists in the
arena. It's all too neat.
The disappointing thing is how quickly the film sacrifices
the chance to take a deeper and more authentically human approach, in order to fall back on the
easy standby of Good vs. Bad. And it has the perfect opportunity to go deeper. The story is split
into two distinct pieces - the first half, during which we're introduced to the principle characters
as well as the dystopian society in which the Games thrive; and the second half, which shows us
the Games themselves.
The basic structure offers such a clear opportunity for the filmmakers to show how the event
changes these people. But there seems to be a steadfast refusal to accept that the Hunger Games
are an event being thrust upon actual human beings, and as such it can - no, must - affect them,
for better or worse. Instead, we get two noble heroes (Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark) one
side; on the other, an alliance of villains (led by Cato), all of whom are presented as
pathologically evil from the beginning, not just willing but eager to kill, and to take pleasure in
doing so. There is no room for progress with these characters.
I have less of an issue with Katniss, the heroine who volunteers for the Games after her younger
sister's name is initially chosen. Jennifer Lawrence plays the role with such ferocity and warmth,
it's easier to forgive the flaws in the way the character is written. That she only ever kills in pure
self-defense is probably for the betterment of the story anyway. The surrounding characters are
more of the problem. There's the aforementioned Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), whose only motive
seems to be protecting Katniss, even at his own expense. Then there are a couple of kindly
supporting characters who only do nice things and would never hurt a soul. And all the other
kids are essentially neutral - and, for that reason, ignored, as the film shifts its focus to the
characters with more easily defined archetypal roles.
There is one scene that captures the savagery of the situation at hand - the very first scene of the
Hunger Games themselves, as the tributes are unleashed and officially at the mercy of the arena
- and each other. The scene impressed me because of the way it jumps right into the raw
brutality of the Games, showing characters' immediate willingness to kill. Which is what made
the simpler, more digestible narrative that followed so underwhelming. Where did all that
filmmaking courage go?
Look, I wasn't looking for this to turn into Blood Meridian or something. In fact, I think the
retention of some shred of basic goodness and humanity is essential to the story. It's just that the
approach seems too simplistic for the material. The movie is too intent on shielding viewers from
the atrocities inherent in the premise.
Given the forgettable adversarial clash between
Katniss/Peeta and Cato and his gang of psychopaths, it's no coincidence that the far more
interesting conflict is the one between the tributes and the gamemakers (and, peripherally, the
society that makes the Games possible in the first place). One of the opening moments
introduces Seneca (Wes Bentley), the "gamemaker." He (along with a team of technicians)
designs the course, keeps track of everyone and everything and manipulates the contest when the
circumstances call for it.
The idea of the tributes competing not just against one another but against the will (and whims)
of the gamemaker - not to mention the government that's sponsoring this whole thing and just
might want a say in how it turns out - is one of the aspects of the film that really works. There
are other positives as well. I already mentioned Lawrence's performance, but similar kudos go to
the work of Lenny Kravitz (as Katniss' stylist/handler, Cinna), Stanley Tucci (as the Games'
hammy and eccentric television host) and Woody Harrelson (as Haymitch, a former Games
survivor, now a drunken mentor for Katniss and Peeta).
There's also something to be said for director Gary Ross. The helmer of Pleasantville and
Seabiscuit takes a quiet, naturalistic approach to this world, using handheld camerawork to
observe small details and moments that subtly illuminate the story's larger, weightier issues.
(Caveat: The handheld style works well when it's just observing, but slips into incoherent
territory when used in scenes of close combat.)
Consider the lightly satirical way he contrasts the ostentatious fashion styles of the upper classes
with the drab, poverty-stricken conditions of the districts. That stripped-down aesthetic is
reflected in the film's music and sound design as well - Ross makes great use of quiet (or
disquiet) during pivotal sequences, emphasizing the gravity of the situation through silences and
ambience instead of pounding us with a pulsating score.
The fact that there was genuine care in the way The Hunger Games was conceived and
constructed gives me at least some optimism that the pending sequels will get more out of the
material than this one did. Let's hope the future chapters can more effectively delve into the
story's more fertile soil.