When Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was published in 2008, it became a sensation, shooting to the top of the New York Times Bestseller lists. That’s something that doesn’t normally happen for Young Adult books unless the author’s last name is Rowling. The other books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, were just as successful. The only question was whether they could be successfully transferred to film.
The film of the first book, The Hunger Games, answers that question with a resounding yes. Collins’ vision blended a dystopian/utopian vision of the future with reality TV gone wild, and she created a memorable heroine in the tough, unsentimental Katniss Everdeen. The movie does the book proud.
In the distant future, the rebellion of the 13 districts against the central government of Panem was ruthlessly crushed. (One district was completely destroyed as a warning to the remaining 12.) As a reminder of the subjugation, each year the 12 districts pay a tribute of two children between the ages of 12 and 18 who will compete in the Hunger Games, where they must fight to the death until only one is left. The winner is then showered with riches and glory.
16-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is the provider for her 12-year-old sister Primrose (Willow Shields), since her widowed mother has withdrawn from life. Katniss is a deadly accurate hunter with a bow and arrow, and the game she illegally kills keeps the family going. Her best friend is Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, the younger brother of Thor’s Chris Hemsworth). The reaping, where the tribute children are selected, is coming soon, and the odds are that Gale will be chosen.
The day of the District 12 reaping arrives, under the direction of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). When the names are drawn, Primrose is the girl chosen. Knowing Prim has no chance of survival, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Rather than Gale, the male selected is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has a history with Katniss.
With mentoring from Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a prior winner of the Games, along with styling help from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss and Peeta are put through a training period where they must also seek sponsorship for the tourney. The provisions of sponsorship, be it medical aid or food, could be the difference between living and dying.
Overseeing the games is Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), operating under the watchful eye of the leader of Panem, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The games are both entertainment as well as brutal yearly intimidation for the 12 districts. For 74 years it has instilled fear in the poor district residents, but Snow fears one thing: Hope. “It is the only thing stronger than fear,” he tells Seneca.
Collins had worked in children’s television before turning to writing, creating one of the best shows in Nickelodeon’s history, Clarissa Explains It All. She worked closely on the adaptation of her book, co-writing the script and serving as executive producer. Her main writing collaborator and the director of the movie was Gary Ross, whose previous work includes Big, Dave, Pleasantville, and Seabiscut (the first two as screenwriter, the last two as both screenwriter and director). Ross is excellent at taking written words and translating the scene to film. He stays as true to the source material as is possible in a 2 ½ hour movie.
For the opening scenes in District 12, Ross utilizes handheld cameras and washed out color which helps give a feeling of the hand-to-mouth existence of the residents. Then he anchors the camera and increases the color pallet as the action shifts to the capitol. While the district residents wear ragged clothes, the capitol citizens look like Lady Gaga wannabes. It sharpens the dystopian/utopian conflict of the book.
The film is filled with sparkling scenes played by excellent actors. Stanley Tucci serves as the interviewer/commentator for the Games, a mix between Ryan Seacrest and Elton John in his Captain Fantastic days. Katniss’ main threats in the games are the representatives of District 1, the sword-wielding Cato (Alexander Ludwig) and the knife-throwing Clove (Isabel Fuhrman), who are outstanding. There’s also beautiful, heartbreaking work by Amandla Stenberg as the young Rue, whom Katniss takes under her wing. Woody Harrelson is excellent as Haymitch, a world-weary survivor who recovers his soul under the influence of Katniss. As Cinna, rocker Kravitz is surprisingly effective. Donald Sutherland oozes a paternalistic malice as President Snow.
But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, and she takes ownership of it. She’d shown with the low-budget Winter’s Bone that she could carry a movie (and carry off an Academy Award nomination). Now she shows she can anchor a tent-pole series.
There are weaknesses with the movie – you hardly get to see the other districts and the rest of the tribute are little more than cannon fodder – but overall it works.
The movie (and the books) echoes the Roman gladiatorial combats – on purpose. The name given to the country by Collins, Panem, means “Bread” in Latin, and is a part of the famous phrase panem et circenses: Bread and Circuses, offerings and entertainments used to placate and distract the Roman populace, keeping them content. In the movies we’ve had Spartacus and Maximus, fighting against corruption and dictatorial power. Now we have Katniss Everdeen.