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Old 25th Apr 2012, 12:59   #1
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Default The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is the film hit of the moment, taking the baton on as both Harry Potter and Twilight retreat into the shadows and silence of franchise-closure. Along with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series it has been the Young Adult trilogy of most fame for the last few years. As a stylish and exciting variation on Battle Royale and Series 7; The Contenders, it presents gladiatorial combat for a reality-TV generation, relying for plausibility on a post-apocalyptic quasi-Roman empire that has arisen from the devastation. Vast poverty is only a hi-speed train-track away from a gleaming hi-tech metropolis, poverty that borrows its look from a blend of the 1930’s depression and 1950’s style clothing married to a medieval way of life, bows and arrows to shoot meat for the table, starvation in the marketplace if your parents cannot provide.

The book-to-film translation of The Hunger Games works for the most part very well indeed: the look and feel of District 12 of Panem, and of The Capitol, insanely wealthy and almost insane in its OTT fashion and ethics, does justice to the world of the books and casting has given a good back-up panel with Woody Harrelson excelling as Haymitch, the alcoholic mentor for the central characters taking part in the Games, and Lenny Kravitz as the fashion stylist Cinna. Full marks to production design and costume design, and also to Suzanne Collins (the author) for her part in the screenplay. There are lovely contrasts in tone and action throughout the film and one serious jump-in-your-seat moment which restores a sense of danger to the film.

Because, sadly, the film doesn’t deliver on the sheer nastiness of the concept – yes, it’s been downgraded to a 12A (robbed of some blood and impact shots), but really both the author and the director have pulled back on the full weight of what The Hunger Games might mean for an individual. Katniss Everdeen, as the supposedly gritty heroine, only kills her fellow-competitors in inadvertent ways or in split-second defence moves. Whilst the softer, more vulnerable Peeta, the baker’s son, avoids killing altogether, she is portrayed as a skilled hunter (providing food for the family) but lacks both a killer instinct and also the opportunity to go beyond the boundaries of her ‘character’: she is never allowed to be morally compromised in this film and that makes the Games very dull indeed. Katniss has time for sentimental funeral rites in a death-ridden forest and her only serious challenger is the target baddie, Cato, a ‘career Tribute’ who has trained for the Games all his life.

I guess The Hunger Games film merely reflects its strengths and weaknesses as a book: the concepts that failed (for me) in the book look even more glaring in glossy technicolour, the well-drawn secondary characters are given chance to shine. Liam Hemsworth (brother of Chris “Thor”) as Katniss’s village boyfriend has few scenes in which to impress his philosophy of non-co-operation, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has chance to exhibit his smarts as a competitor (revealing his crush on Katniss and playing the crowds, surviving by letting the dangerous faction ‘use’ him in the Games. This is not to draw any praise from Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss – after Winter’s Bone, she does determined, socially isolated young woman very well – but Katniss’s trials in the games are over-played to the detriment of audience sympathy, I suspect.

So is it “Happy Hunger Games! May the odds be ever in your favour!” ?
Well, this film delivered on at least 80% of its aims, I think, so we have a winner. The sequel, Catching Fire, already in hurried production (causing the director to up-sticks in a huff), will perhaps show more of the moral and emotional complexities of competing in a life-or-death arena, and sadly, the last third, Mockingjay, will have to train hard and transform the poor material in the book to give us a finale worth cheering.

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