The Hunger Games
Based solely on the movie from her best-selling novel, Suzanne Collins’s world in “The Hunger Games” illustrates several layers of social commentary. First and foremost, there’s the timely political and economic commentary, as 24 “tributes” (one boy and one girl from each of this futuristic nation’s 12 districts) are selected to participate in The Hunger Games, a life-or-death competition used by the upper-crust of society to entertain the masses, and to keep the peace after a civil war that ravaged North America long ago. In addition to bringing to mind the current debate regarding economic inequality nowadays, there’s also very pointed looks at reality television and violence as entertainment. Since the Games are over when the credits begin to roll, I’m extremely curious as to where the next chapter of Collins’s series, Catching Fire, will take the franchise when it is brought to screens next year.
What gets me even more stoked about the continuation of this series, however, is having Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role of Katniss Everdeen. Yes, Lawrence is a beauty on the red carpet, but her acting chops are even more impressive, and critical to the overall, emotional impact of “The Hunger Games” on viewers. She may have started out on “The Bill Engvall Show,” but this stunner graduated to star-in-the-making status with her tremendous, Oscar-nominated performance in “Winter’s Bone,” with supporting roles as the younger Mystique in “X-Men: First Class” and indie films like “The Beaver” and “Like Crazy” only adding to her up-and-comer vibe. That combination of star beauty and raw talent makes her an ideal choice as Katniss, who goes to the Capitol to represent District 12 in the Games after her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), is selected in her first year of eligibility. Once at the Capitol, Katniss’s experiences leading up to the Games are not dissimilar of those actresses such as Lawrence go through when they are thrust into the spotlight: she’s made up and costumed by designers to make an impression in front of the masses; she does interviews with television personalities to give people an idea of who they are; and at the private conditioning the people behind the Games hold, she has to give them a reason to give her a chance to thrive in the spotlight. I can see why the role attracted a lot of attention from some of Hollywood’s best, young actresses, but after seeing the movie, I can’t imagine anyone other than Lawrence in the role. She nails it with the same force and feeling she brought to her role in “Winter’s Bone.”
The film’s co-MVP is its co-writer/director, Gary Ross. On the surface, the idea of having the writer of “Big” and “Dave,” and the writer/director of “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” taking on such a rough-and-tumble adventure film is a curious one, but the heart he brought to those projects is key to this film being the start of a franchise like “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings,” or another pretender like “Twilight.” (Yes, I said it, Twihards.) Ross is so focused on Katniss’s emotional journey, which is influenced by her having to step up and take care of her sister after their father’s death left her mother (Paula Malcomson) a catatonic mess, that it’s almost impossible NOT to go on this journey with her. Thankfully, Lawrence is easy to follow as a moviewatcher: like Katniss, she’s intelligent, resourceful, and is naturally luminous. It’s a genuine collaboration between director and actress that mirrors the people in the film who turn Katniss into an icon: namely, the stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who sees the heart underneath Katniss’s sometimes-cold shell; and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the former Hunger Game winner from District 12 who mentors Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the male choice from D-12, as they get ready to go out into the playing field, which becomes a battleground of Darwinian strategy for the 24 “tributes.” Like “Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Star Wars” (the original trilogy, at least), Ross’s film turns on character, not action or style, regardless of how garish and over-the-top the fashion of the “Haves” at the Capitol is; it’s easy to root for underdogs like Katniss and Peeta to put these high society people in their place when you look at the absurd things they wear.
I made much in the opening paragraph of this review about the themes the film touches on in its setting and narrative, and indeed, the film is a great film to strike up debate about things like: the current battles between the 1% and the 99%; the numbing impact so-called “reality television” like “Survivor” has on a society that is less-concerned with its civil liberties than being entertained; and most importantly, what it says when the death of teens in the name of “entertainment” is common practice, and accepted. As Katniss’s friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), says near the beginning, “What if everyone just stopped watching?” I’m sure that question will be better answered in either “Catching Fire” or “Mockingjay,” the next two chapters in Collins’s trilogy. For now, though, we’ll have to live with the image of Katniss and Peeta returning to District 12, unsure of what the world will bring after their acts of defiance against the status quo resulted in unprecedented action on the parts of the Powers That Be. I’m pretty sure of one thing, though: if past triumphs over the natural order of the world in cinematic fantasy have taught us anything, it’s that the middle part of such stories is always the darkest. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.
**Post-Script** In focusing on the thematic and narrative elements of the film, I haven’t spent much time on the usual, cinematic elements. This is where my rating of the film really speaks volumes about the film itself. Though the hand-held cinematography by Tom Stern was, typically, not as effective as Ross had hoped in using it to bring us closer to the “urgency” of the story, my reservations about it lie primarily during the first part of the movie; once the action moves to the game zone, its effectiveness increases ten-fold. The art direction and costume design are both superb in creating a unique, cinematic universe, the same with the visual effects and sets that make the Games themselves feel like they take place in a “Truman Show” sort of pseudo-reality. And the music by James Newton Howard (composing one of his best scores), and produced by T Bone Burnett, really captures the mood and dispair of life in this artificial world the upper-class of this society has created. And though I focused on Lawrence’s performance in the bulk of my review, as he showed in “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” Ross is a natural with actors, getting strong work from everyone from Elizabeth Banks and Harrelson to Donald Sutherland (who plays President Snow) and Stanley Tucci as the eccentric MC of all things Hunger Games. Everything works just right to make “The Hunger Games” the best film I’ve seen in this early year. It’s definitely one of the few times in the past few years where a film of this scope and size tugged at my heartstrings like this one did.