By Toussaint Egan
In an unspecified time in a dystopia future, the North American continent has now been renamed “Panem” and divided up into twelve “District” states, each with their own designation of industry, with one capital zone that rules over them in a feudal oligarchy. In a yearly routine to quell rebellion in the outlining districts and inspire fear and reverence for the Capital, each of the twelve is required to offer a “tribute” of one male and one female between the ages of twelve and eighteen to journey to the Capital zone. There, the twenty-four children are trained in a pageantto fight in a mass-televised battle to the death known as “The Hunger Games.” Basically, Panem is like North Korean and North America with a Thunderdome for children.
The main protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence of X-Men: Origins. Katniss is a sixteen year old resident of the coal mining District 12 who volunteers to be offered as a tribute to save the life of her twelve-year-old sister Primrose. The other tribute is Peeta Mellark, played by Joshua Hutcherson. Peeta comes from a family of impoverished bakers and fosters a deep-seeded but as of yet unrequited affection for Katniss.
You’re might be wondering how exactly a film that’s about children killing children earned a Pg-13 rating. I’ll tell you why. It’s because the cinematography centered on the moments of violence is abrupt and muddled at best, with a number of deaths that happen to characters that the audience don’t know and therefore don’t care about. Shaky camera shots and motion blur are the tricks of the trade when it comes to this movie.
The Capital of Panem is a monument to bad taste in clothing and hair styles. Seriously, the “head gamemaker” Seneca Crane has a beard that looks like he took a children’s stencil to a barbershop and told him to “go crazy.” Everyone’s costumes are gaudy and overly bright. It was like Spy-Kids all over again. Though I imagine that these aesthetic decisions are a deliberate choice to allude to the overarching theme of the bourgeois upper class preying on the working class.
Throughout the course of the game, Katniss is forced to contend head on with some of the more psychotically enthusiastic participants and forge short-lived alliances with a couple of the more sane contestants. Katniss is one of the only characters that have the privilege of retaining their humanity throughout the course of the film while every other child is immersed in the choice of kill or be killed. The problem is that the death of her allies is too conveniently at the hands of some other faceless nameless aggressor and that Katniss herself is seldom faced with the soul-crushing reality of having to turn on her allies to survive. I can’t recall a single person’s life that she takes that isn’t either out of self-defense or retribution. Katniss doesn’t retain her humanity out of the merit of courage or perseverance, but out of the coincidence of simply being the protagonist and a need for that protagonist to be likeable, and that ultimately feels disingenuous and takes away from the gravity of the situation that this film presents. The premise doesn’t hit as hard as it should and the stakes don’t feel at all as high as they should be.
Character portrayals are pretty much hit or miss in this movie. Elizabeth Banks plays a character named Effie Trinket, but I couldn’t tell you who that woman is or what exactly she is supposed to do. Jennifer Lawrence delivers the most resonating performance as Katniss, and Lenny Kravitz and Amandla Steenberg portray Cinna and Rue as very likable and tragic characters. I feel like the only person in this film that takes the actual games seriously enough to be disturbed by them is Woody Harelson’s character Haymitch Abernathy, the fighting mentor of Katniss and Peeta who’s either drunk or experiencing the tail-end of a hangover for the majority of the film.
I know that these comparisons have been said before and have become tired, but the film seriously felt like a mash-up between Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, but their influence is prominently apparent to anyone familiar with the two throughout most of the story’s events, and given that it comes off as a tad bit redundant. It all feels formulaic. There’s violence, there’s angst, there’s bright colors, there’s the brewing tension of an oncoming love triangle. All of these are the right ingredients for a successful teen movie sensation.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know how to feel about The Hunger Games. At the end of the film, I walked out of the theater neither particularly enthused nor entirely disappointed. The Hunger Games is a movie based off of a young adult novel series, and it shows. It was entertaining but felt like a hollow surface thrill with a real wealth of depth and ideas hidden away somewhere far off the screen. Undoubtedly, I assume that this is another case of an adaptation losing the bulk of the content of the original in the translation from book to film. I would recommend this film to anyone who is a fan of the book series and wants to some of their favorite scenes realized in a film. For anyone else, it’s an entertaining film with an engaging premise but it pulls too many of its punches to leave an impact.