Friday, 23 March 2012

'The Hunger Games' review:

The screams of young girls in the audience leave no doubt as to who the film's target audience is, yet 'The Hunger Games' - and its impossibly hunky onscreen love triangle - exist in a far more compelling world than that of the similarly pitched 'Twilight': trading in high school vampires for post-apocalyptic hardship and child-on-child warfare. Both films are based on pieces of teen fiction which mix action with angsty romance, yet this one's sulky heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), at least has cause to be sulky.

As the story begins, Katniss is established as a capable and fiercely pragmatic young woman who provides for her poverty-stricken family, hunting game in the forbidden woods alongside her handsome chum Gale (Liam Hemsworth). With her father dead and mother drifting in and out of a manic depressive coma, Katniss is the only thing standing between her sweet young sister, Prim, and certain death by starvation. You see, the Everdeens live in District 12: the poorest of the outlying communities of Panem - a futuristic nation built on the ruins of North America - and they spend their days toiling thanklessly in service of the central ruling Capitol: a city of superficial, fashion-obsessed gluttons.

Shit really hits the fan when Prim is chosen at random to be her district's tribute in the year's annual Hunger Games, prompting Katniss to volunteer in her place. As fate would have it, the male tribute is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) - an equally dreamy and faultlessly good-natured baker's son who's harboured a life-long crush on Katniss and to whom, for a past kindness, Katniss owes her life. Thus complicating the titular game which only one of them can hope to survive. Happily the question of whether Katniss prefers drippy Peeta or outdoorsy Gale is not the film's main preoccupation, however much it might be the chief selling point for a large chunk of the audience.

With a set-up that's instantly familiar to those who've seen the hyper-violent Japanese thriller 'Battle Royale', the Hunger Games themselves see 24 children (a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district) fighting to the death with the survivor crowned the winner - henceforth entitled to a life of luxury. The twist here is that the tournament takes the form of a gaudy reality TV show, complete with much pageantry and all the contrivances of that genre. Director Gary Ross' adaptation deviates slightly from the book by using the Truman Show-esque device of depicting those in control of the games, manipulating the arena to generate the most exciting spectacle for public consumption, which works well. But otherwise it's a highly faithful, if abridged, version of the tale - only really omitting the book's minor characters and interminable scenes of hunting, eating, and dress making.

As in the books, the games themselves fall short of the more fascinating build-up, a fact not helped by the UK 12A certificate version cutting some of the more violent footage. Making child v child death matches more palatable for increased consumption is morally questionable to say the least, though I understand that the film's box office hopes are pinned chiefly on the world's tweens. Even still, the film does seem overall more squeamish than the book, eschewing the frank nudity, Katniss' frequent (remorseless and detailed) animal slaying, and being coy with the arena violence. Katniss spends much of the book bruised and bloody, but not here where the entire games feels as though they take place over a couple of days.

Lawrence is a perfect choice as Katniss, convincing as strong, and being the embodiment of the character's winsome beautiful-whilst-non-girlish shtick - even if the film's version is rather more prone to bouts of weeping - though its doubtful whether the book's heroine, who so totally internalises every emotion that isn't contemptuous fury, would work on screen. I suppose, robbed of access to her thought process we need to see that she is upset, lest we think she is uncaring or wooden. Likewise, Hutcherson - who seemed so mopey as a sulky teen in 'The Kids Are All Right' - does live up to the book's vision of Peeta as vulnerable, noble, and charismatic.

In many respects this version improves upon the original. For instance, Suzanne Collins' books are so light on physical description of people and places that the look of the film feels like it's breathing life into her world rather than struggling to live up to the reader's imagination. Though the books don't specify the race of any of the characters, it's great so see some of the most crucial and beloved characters cast with black actors (chiefly Lenny Kravitz as Cinna and Amandla Stenberg as Rue), even if the lead parts have all been read as Caucasian.

It's also true that here the villainous kids are more problematic enemies than those of the book, with the ultimate baddie portrayed as far more human. They are still cast as bullying jocks for the most part, though in a way that reads as a Lord of the Flies style look at child behaviour (albeit a shallow one), rather than simply a way to render their deaths more palatable. The film also does well to weave in some of the second book's themes, of wider civil disobedience and the repercussions of Katniss' actions, showing the impact of the games on the people of Panem, giving events a sense of weight.

By breaking from the consistent first person narrative of the text it's also able to show us the games as televised. To this end, Toby Jones and the ever-watchable Stanley Tucci form an entertaining commentary team, who guide us through stranger elements of the world's lore and provide some neat (if gentle) satire of reality TV, reflecting back some of our culture's fondness for exploitative voyeurism and love of glossy, gossipy pap. In fact everything outside of the arena is handled better in the film than the book, with a note-perfect Woody Harrelson particularly funny as Katniss and Peeta's mentor Haymitch.

The teen girl mob, who during the show I attended literally screamed the house down whenever Gale or Peeta (or a cat or a child) appeared on screen, seem to have found a new set of idols and, with Lawrence's robust central showing, a feminine hero for the ages. Perhaps there's little surprise in their showing of affection for this material, in many ways so cynically tailored to meet their interests, but what's striking is that 'The Hunger Games' is actually to some extent worthy of their adulation.

'The Hunger Games' is released today in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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