The premise alone carries it so far, but cinematically speaking, The Hunger Games is a non-event.
Seventy-four years ago the 13 Districts of Panem rebelled against The Capitol. Their defeat has been marked ever since by the annual Hunger Games, in which two ‘tributes’, one male and one female, are selected from the Districts to fight to the death in a televised event. They are aged between 12 and 18-years-old. Never were the sins of the fathers visited more brutally on their sons and daughters.
When Primrose Everdeen is chosen to represent District 12 in her first ‘Reaping’, her sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers instead. She is joined by Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a quiet baker’s son fated to become both her companion and adversary.
But as Katniss and Peeta are guided through the ritual of the Games by drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), assisted by a chaperone, Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the pair begin to do something remarkable: first they seduce the baying mob of The Capitol and then, perhaps, they begin to seduce each other.
This is the backbone of Suzanne Collins’ teen-pleasing novel, which has earned inevitable comparisons with Stephanie Meyers’ 'Twilight' saga. Both share a loyal audience, teak-tough heroine and ambivalent love triangle (Gale, Katniss’ bessie mate-cum-romantic interest, is waiting back in District 12). But The Hunger Games’ more pressing forebears are Stephen King’s The Running Man and Kinji Fukasaku’s anarchic Battle Royale.
That latter film in particular casts a long shadow over Gary Ross’ faithfully odd adaptation. Because no matter how kinetic his shaky-cam rendering of the arena, regardless of a dramatic subtext that evokes both Nazi death camps and the complicit voyeurism of reality TV, despite a barnstorming performance from Jennifer Lawrence, there’s simply no way for The Hunger Games to break loose from the shackles of its target audience and put the true, unimaginable, unendurable horror of that premise up there on screen.
For that reason alone, Fukasaku’s film remains the key cinematic evocation of what William Golding described as "man’s inhumanity to man".
This is no idle criticism. Denuded of that horror by the need to reach out to the widest possible audience, The Hunger Games has become exactly what it depicts on screen: a spectacle of desensitised violence in which we, the mob, are invited to sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
And yet even as raw spectacle The Hunger Games has problems. Ross has done a decent job of pruning the book and axing unnecessary characters. But he spectacularly drops the ball at a couple of key moments, most notably Katniss and Peeta’s entrance into The Capitol bathed in flaming capes. This scene is meant to cement Katniss’ reputation as ‘the girl who caught fire’ – a beguiling vision of beauty that seduces The Capitol.
It’s a cinematic gimme, but Ross fumbles it with some unforgivable green screen. It’s also here that he establishes Peeta’s motivation as something so cynical that the romantic scenes in the arena don’t resonate as they should.
Lawrence works her socks off as Katniss – she’s haunting in close-up, emotionally controlled and convincing as both hunter and hunted. Harrelson and Kravitz are solid in smaller roles, and Elizabeth Banks captures the eye, vividly grotesque costumes and make-up turning her into a kind of futuristic Joker.
But Hutcherson and the rest of the tributes make for drab companions, with the paltry attempts at characterising the ‘Careers’ (volunteer tributes who have been trained for the Games) especially woeful. Back in District 12, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) looks like he’s stumbled out of a Ralph Lauren fashion shoot and chanced it on camera.
There’s no doubt that The Hunger Games is an ambitious, unusual undertaking for a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s so deeply flawed – conceptually and in terms of execution – that it’s hard to even give it points for that. There’s scarcely a single memorable shot in the entire film, which is saying something when at least one of them involves a young tribute getting a spear in the guts.
Bereft of passion and urgency, unlike the starving and desperate inhabitants of the outlying districts, The Hunger Games simply doesn’t have the hunger in its belly to ever truly catch fire.
The books are a sensation. Jennifer Lawrence is perfect casting. The odds are ever in its favour.
Fatally emasculated by the need to appease young fans. The premise alone carries it so far, but cinematically speaking, it’s a non-event.
Forget the hype. Any critic who goes 5-stars on The Hunger Games is guilty of professional negligence.