It’s a testament to how good the The Hunger Games ‘thing’ really is that the book and this film manage to sell the premise so well. Twilight was easy: vampires are sexy – who among us didn’t know that already? But tripling a dystopian nightmare of teen Gladitorial murder with a satire on reality television and the Marxist notion of cultural hegemony? Harder sell you would think. And yet no – Suzanne Collins’ original novel on which this movie was based currently has three million copies in print.
In the post-apocalyptic America known as ‘Panem’, the impoverished and repressed citizens of the ‘12 Districts’ are reminded of the consequences of their former uprising through a brutal reminder of what violence is. Each year, each must offer up a 12-18-year-old girl and boy to partake in an annual fight-to-the-death on gaudy live television. Once you’ve waded through the backstory, it’s brutally simple stuff. Very simple actually – it’s The Running Man meets The X Factor meets Battle Royale rammed through the unbeatable slipstream that is post-Twilight young adult fantasy fiction.
And yet almost despite that, it’s pretty great. By shooting close up with an impressively shaky camera, director Gary Ross lets the love story play second fiddle to the unnerving brutality of the main plot. You never get bored as the rural battle sequences of the second act jar with the colourful corruption of the Capitol as it cheers the games on.
And the adult cast deserve applause. Elizabeth Banks marries Bonham-Carter with Thatcher with delicious camp as schoolmarmish Games recruiter Effie Trinket. Woody Harrelson is convincingly damaged as good-hearted drunk coach Haymitch Abernathy. Stanley Tucci brings the house down as the nightmarish Dale-Winton-gone-evil that is TV host Caesar Flickerman. And Lenny Kravitz (you read that right) convinces with a pared down turn as the kindly, funky battle-stylist Cinna.
But the revelation is Jennifer Lawrence in a far more nuanced performance then we’re normally given to expect from this kind of movie. She electrifies, and it’s a good job she’s left to carry all of the scenes those other four aren’t in.
If they’re trying to set up an Edward-Bella-Jacob triangle here, Josh Hutcherson’s reluctant hero Peeta is underwritten, and Liam Hemsworth’s alpha-hunk Gale is left not only on the sidelines, but quite completely out of the action. The point must be to deliberately paint the men as pathetic in order to set up the heroine, but it’s also a sluggish way of staging the inevitable sequels. Neither of these boys are worthy of Kaitniss, and yet they can’t be that pathetic, or why use them in the first place? And there is The Hunger Games’ weakness. As the opening chapter of a wider story it’s cool and savvy, but as a piece of film-making in its own right? Not so much.
Sickening things happen in this film. Bravely sickening things, actually. But then it doesn’t act on them, much less resolve anything. Harrelson and Kravitz are presented as goodies, perhaps sleeper cells in a resistance even. But they’re still complicit in the savagery and they get off the hook. Shouldn’t the 99.9% (in this case) be out for their blood?
There’s a brief scene of impoverished resistance, an early mention made by Hemsworth that “if we all stopped watching they’d have no games.” But watch they do. As we all know, all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. And based on that logic and a metaphor so heavy handed, here’s a society barely deserving of salvation.
All of that’s clearly coming in the two, probably three sequels. But the effect is maddening – largely because of how little you realise those concerns now matter. Post-Twilight and Potter, this is how stories apparently told now. This movie’s box office tracking is bigger than Twilight. And it’s good enough that people are going to come back.