Liz dragged me along to The Hunger Games this afternoon. You know, that movie that everyone is talking about. I was more than a little resistant. Admittedly I didn’t know anything about The Hunger Games – Liz has been raving about how good the books are – but I was expecting a Westernised Battle Royale with a healthy dose of Hollywood cheese.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the Battle Royale films. I absolutely love them for all their gruesome hack and slash delights. But there seems to be this need in Hollywood to remake foreign films for Western audiences. They did it with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (“Män som hatar kvinnor” 2009) when they released the American version in 2011 starring Daniel Craig. Why?! The original is fantastic – and harrowing – with a stellar performance by Noomi Rapace. They did it again with Let the Right One In (“Låt den rätte komma in” 2008) re-imagined as Let Me In (2010). I don’t know why there seems to be this Western aversion to foreign films. In many ways they’re head and shoulders above the airbrushed sugar we get from Hollywood. They’re quirky and unique in their own way.
So was The Hunger Games a re-imagined Battle Royale sell-out? Actually, not at all! I take it all back: i’m converted; I loved the film. I enjoyed it enough to read the books as soon as I finish the last Harry Potter. To be honest, I probably would have been happy with it even if it was like Battle Royale, but this is a film that takes the “set a bunch of kids in an arena to kill each other” scenario and makes its own mark on it. For one thing, the actual fighting doesn’t happen until much later in the film. Instead the film spends a long time establishing the key characters, their relationships, and the political structure of the Panem nation with its rich Capitol, and 12 surrounding districts.
The film opens on Reaping Day: a day of remembrance for the previous civil war which sees the 12 outlying districts offer up a young boy and girl as “tribute” to take part in The Hunger Games; a ritual fight to the death which leaves only one victor. We’re introduced to Katniss Everdene played by Jennifer Lawrence: a strong-willed young woman, handy with a bow and arrow, who will do anything to provide for her mother and young sister. When her sister is chosen to take part in The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her stead, leaving behind the squalor of the Twelfth District for all the pomp and mockery of the Capitol. Together with a local boy, Peeta, she is whisked off into the media frenzy surrounding The Hunger Games, repackaged for the camera, and put through combat training with the other 22 contestants.
It’s all disgustingly ironic. While the twelve districts eke out a living from the land, the citizens of the Capitol live a life of luxury with food and warmth to spare, and the superiority complex to match. Katniss finds herself paraded around by her oppressors like a show dog, asked to perform for them while they cheer her on and congratulate her for taking part in their Game. And it is a game to the citizens of the Capitol. Whole industries are built around The Hunger Games with sponsorship deals and camera opportunities galore. Everything is arranged to maximise the performance and the public lap it up, strutting about in their extravagant hairdos, with their fake smiles.
Katniss herself takes everything in her stride. She is initially dazed by the media attention but later accepts that she must ‘play the game’ through gritted teeth to get sponsorship deals and increase her chances of surviving The Hunger Games. She helps Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) show his own strengths and, while initially distancing herself from him, grows closer to him over the course of the film. This was both touching and awkward like most teen romances and the glimses of their backstory throughout the film were very revealing.
Most of the other contestants however, while each having their own strengths, come across as a bit one-dimensional. Alexander Ludwig plays Cato, the typical ‘in it to win it’ kid with attitude. He never really gets a chance to become anything other than this unfortunately.
Throughout the games Jennifer Lawrence shows off Katniss’ hunting prowess and survival skills with gritty detail. We see her setting traps and finding safe places to spend the night, always staying one step ahead of the other contestants. While the film is only a 12A there are enough cuts and bruises to show the brutality of The Games without the violence being glamorised. Like The Truman Show everything is televised, however unlikely it is that there just so happens to be a camera pointing in that direction at that particular time. But the technology that makes it all possible thankfully takes a backseat to the characters themselves, allowing for many intimate moments amongst the action.
The other supporting characters in the film are played really well. As her mentor Haymitch, Woody Harrelson is the weak-willed ex-winner who finds comfort at the bottom of a bottle. He comes around later and is one of the few who offer Katniss helpful advice. Meanwhile her stylist Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, again sympathises with her situation, but frustratingly does little to help, while Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman epitomises the smarmy television star we all love to hate.
The evident injustice really makes your blood boil and by the end of the film you are rooting for the underdogs to upset the status quo. It’s an epic, emotionally charged, film that has you on the edge of your seat the whole way through, and it deliberately leaves many questions for the next film to explore. I for one can’t wait.