The Hunger Games
is being set up as the next big young adult cinema franchise in the vein of Harry Potter
. Which is interesting, because its subject matter is a lot darker and more complex than either of those two crowd-friendly properties. It moves away from the realm of fantasy towards that of allegory, setting up a dystopian future that points towards the foibles of the present. The film deftly delivers an entertaining experience, though it skimps a bit on the juicier notions. Still, it’s an effective piece of table setting, and the franchise seems poised to deliver so much more.
75 years ago, 12 districts of the nation of Panem rebelled against the government. The districts lost, and since then as punishment, each of the twelve districts is forced every year to send one boy and one girl aged twelve to eighteen to participate in the Hunger Games, a free-for-all battle royale that grants only the winner his or her life. In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to save her younger sister from having to join the games. She is joined by Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son whose wiliness makes up for a lack of fighting prowess. The two are brought to the capital, where they must prepare to fight for their lives.
It’s a fascinating world that the movie sets up. So fascinating, in fact, that the action in the games feels like the least interesting bit of the movie. There’s so much more going on in the background, with rich, complex characters having to make deals to affect the outcome of the games, and clever allegory building to a grand theme of suppression and abasement. In contrast, the titular games feel a little tame and contrived. Some of the players just don’t seem like they’re fighting for their lives, which makes the plight of the protagonists a little less tense. The participants don’t get a lot of characterization as a whole, which further weakens the danger element.
It still works out well enough, though. The film’s action is mostly solid, and that carries the sequences through. And though a lot of time is devoted to the games, there’s still plenty to see around the edges. The film is most interesting when it gives a scene the room to breathe. Early in the movie, when Katniss’ younger sister Primrose is selected for the games, the film slows down enough to catch the little details of the moment. A painful silence follows Primrose as she approaches the stage, and she tucks in the tails of her blouse, following her sister’s advice for perhaps the last time. It’s a beautiful moment that speaks with incredible emotion, and the film is able to capture a handful of these. Moody directing and a haunting, evocative score completes this picture.
Tying the film together is a fantastic performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen is a great character, a vision of strength, sacrifice, and beguiling vulnerability. Lawrence, who definitely draws something from her performance in the excellent Winter’s Bone
, easily exudes those qualities. She is at the center of this movie, and the entire production benefits from it. Josh Hutcherson doesn’t quite have the time to build his character, but he does it effectively enough. The rest of the characters are a little too thin to really comment on, but Woody Harrelson makes great use of the time he has, and Stanley Tucci always classes up a joint.
The Hunger Games
is pretty entertaining, but the stuff around the edges suggests that it could be much more. This first chapter still seems to be hedging its bets with the young adult audience, concentrating on the action and the romance more than all the intriguing allegories that are inherent to the premise. Still, it’s pretty good for what it is. And it sets up plenty of interesting stories that are presumably on the horizon. This is, by far, one of the most intriguing properties I’ve seen developed for mainstream cinema, and one can only hope that they have the follow through to live up to the potential.