With Harry Potter off being an auror and Bella about to bite her lip for the final time, a void has opened up in the movie industry. What new series will set aflame the audiences that have made these franchises such huge hits for their studios?
I was surprised to learn that it was The Hunger Games, a series whose central plot point is a contest which has teenagers murdering each other with blades, bows and their bare hands in an arena for the amusement of the elite. But throw in a high fashion makeover here, a love triangle there, and the concept can become decidedly young adult.
The first film in the series is opening to great reviews and massive fan turnout. The series lacks the flowery prose of Twilight or the whimsicalness of Harry Potter, but is a rather fascinating creation in itself.
The post-apocalypse world we see here is different than most we’ve heard of before. After nuclear war (or something like it), the fraction of the US population that remains is called “Panem.” The land is divided into 13 districts, each specializing in a different sort of resource. While sectors like 1 and 2 are full of the wealthy, the rest are often exceptionally poor, with our hero’s district 12 looking like a coal mining town stuck in 1930.
American Idol gets weird in the future.
The titular Hunger Games is an annual contest meant to remind the twelve remaining districts (the 13th was wiped off the map during a rebellion) that they all must remain unified and beholden to the Capitol. Each district offers up one teenage boy and girl to fight the others to the death in a spacious arena. The winner earns fame, fortune and food for their district. The losers become a stark reminder of the Capitol’s power.
This year, Katniss Everdeen volunteers herself as the female tribute so her younger sister Prim, chosen via lottery, doesn’t have to go. She’s paired with local boy Peeta, and the two journey to the capitol where they’re made over into national celebrities before they’re thrust into the brutal games.
The concept borrows heavily from The Lottery, Ender’s Game and of course, Battle Royale, but chances are the main target audience for the series hasn’t watched a movie about Japanese schoolchildren equipped with exploding collars and machine guns. It’s not fair to dismiss The Hunger Games as a ripoff of any other previous work, as outside of the “children fighting” theme, the world is all its own.
And what a world it is. The film is broken up into three main locales. District 12 looks like a depression era poverty pit while Capitol City appears to be a mix of LA and ancient Egypt, filled to the brim with rich loons wearing powdered wigs and four inch eyelashes. It’s The Fifth Element meets Amadeus.
Why would you have your brutal police force dress in white? Those bloodstains will NEVER come out.
The games themselves become an entirely separate scene as the kids hunt each other down in a vast forest that really does exacerbate the Battle Royale comparisons. Katniss is at an advantage because of her hunting and tracking abilities, but the stronger kids trained from birth to fight all gang up on her, and Peeta’s allegiance remains in question.
Having read the books, the movie really is perfectly cast. The best of the bunch include Woody Harrelson as the drunken District 12 mentor Haymitch and Stanley Tucci as Capitol talk show host Caesar. I really liked Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta, and actually found his quiet strength to be more compelling than Katniss’s…well, whatever she has.
Katniss was a sort of an odd lead in the book. She becomes a national icon and symbol of resistance, but seems like she can’t be bothered by it for most of the series. But at least in the book, told in first person, we get an intimate view of her every thought about what’s happening. But in the film? Jennifer Lawrence’s version of her is probably the least talkative character onscreen, and she doesn’t have much of a personality, outside of a few rare outbursts. Unfortunately, Katniss might be the weakest aspect of the film, which is troubling for a lead.
A trio of the REAL stars.
Many were worried that making the film PG-13 would force the violence to be toned down, but even as someone who pushes for R-ratings whenever possible, I must admit it’s handled well here. The movie does a hard gear shift the moment the games start, and the makeovers and goofy Capitol residents give way to a brutal slaughter at the Cornucopia as the bell sounds in what is possibly the movie’s best sequence. After that, there are plenty of stab wounds and neck breaking to go around, and even if it’s not out of a Tarantino film, it’s still jarring when juxtaposed with the rest of the film.
My only real complaint about the action is the debatable use of the shaky cam which can be overdone at times. Often it’s like the movie is being filmed in a never ending earthquake, and even in casual conversation the camera zooms in on various points of people’s bodies, refusing to sit still for even a minute.
The film is fun, my audience cheered and applauded through several parts, but I wouldn’t say it’s astonishing. Perhaps some of the suspense and mystery is lost if you’ve already read the book, and chances are almost everyone will end up making the tried and true claim that “the book was better.”
Is it? Probably. Katniss’ constant narration is missed, but in terms of major changes, there really isn’t anything left out or changed that should upset fans to a great degree. They breezed over some District 12 parts, changed a few moments in the actual battle itself, but on the whole it’s a pretty faithful adaptation.
It’s clear this is going to be our up and coming big teen-centric series for the next few years, and though it might not blow you away, you could certainly do worse. Not a goddamn vampire in sight.
3.5 out of 5 stars