In the near-future North America has collapsed. In its place stands Panem a nation divided into the affluent Capitol and twelve impoverished districts. Each year the state forces two teenage representatives from each takes, one boy and one girl, to compete in a brutal battle to the death broadcast nationwide. Sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of district twelve volunteers in place of her beloved younger sister (Willow Shields). Alongside fellow competitor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss is brought to Capitol where sympathetic games trainers Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) ensure they are as media-friendly as combat-ready. Come the advent of the games, Katniss must hone her survival skills yet hold onto her humanity if she is to make it out alive.
As any science fiction fan can attest, The Hunger Games does not have the most original premise. The 10th Victim (1965), The Running Man (1987), Series 7: The Contenders (2001) and most infamously Battle Royale (2000) have ploughed this field before. But Hunger Games was a bigger hit than any of these and struck a chord with teenagers around the world. Aside from its sociopolitical aspects, one key reason behind its success is the deft manner in which Suzanne Collins, author of the original trilogy of novels on which this is based, uses the games as an allegory for the adolescent experience. Like all great science fiction, the action might unfold in some far-flung future but comments on the world in which we live today.
It is impossible to watch the micro-managed media circus that surrounds the games and not think of American Idol or Big Brother, shows that serve up a distorted facsimile of reality so pervasive it has begun to be perceived as reality. Governments have not been slow to capitalise on the power of such distortion. When the machiavellian president (Donald Sutherland) describes the games as a more civilised alternative to war, the filmmakers invite viewers to pierce the double-talk as we realise what is war but the sacrifice of our children for the sake of some indefinable goal? In other words, the inhabitants of Panem’s have simply traded one form of dehumanisation for another, only with shinier production values, deceptively inclusive voyeurism and ratings-grabbing gimmicks. Even our heroes’ actions tread a fine line between compromise with their puppet-masters and genuine attempts to puncture the plastic reality in which they are caged.
What writer-director Gary Ross draws from Collins’ novel is this sense that life for young people has become this gladiatorial arena where one must cultivate an image to stay afloat and we no longer know what is real or fake. Into this media-saturated, claustrophobic world strides hope (which, as Sutherland’s character observes, in such an environment is the most powerful emotion of all) in the form of Katniss Everdeen. A heroine who takes charge of her destiny in a world seemingly bereft of choice. Drawing on her background in edgy, independent cinema, Jennifer Lawrence delivers the kind of commanding, charismatic performance one typically associates with a male star from yesteryear. Katniss is brave and resourceful but she is no simple kick-ass comic book chick. Both Lawrence and the filmmakers convey the spirit of an ordinary teenage girl caught in extraordinary, often nightmarish circumstances. We feel her exhilaration getting caught up in the build-up to the games, her confusion and terror in the heat of battle and struggle to hold onto her soul while all around her descend into barbarity.
As excellent as Lawrence is, The Hunger Games is undeniably an ensemble piece with Josh Hutcherson once again demonstrating why he is among the most compelling young actors in cinema today and superb supporting turns from the flamboyantly garbed likes of Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci offering a hideous parody of Ryan Seacrest, Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ kindly mentor along with an atypical turn from Elizabeth Banks who campaigned hard for her role and proves especially memorable as the grotesque Effie Trinket.
The film hits some of the same notes as Gary Ross’ previous works, Pleasantville (1998) and Seabiscuit (2003) which were alternately a subversion and celebration of Americana. A mark of great direction is the manner in which Ross makes viewers live the story rather than feed them details in arcane fashion. A genuine, palpable aura of dread hangs over proceedings. We feel the weight of every death alongside the stimulation of ideas as Ross and his screenwriters provoke the audience into questioning why certain characters do what they do. Each protagonist, even ostensible villains have some complexity to them.
Unlike many other films that tackle the theme of corporate sponsored media manipulation, The Hunger Games does not trip up into heavy-handed satire nor follow the arch route of Seventies dystopian science fiction. It remains impassioned, accessible and above all humane, and that is down to the story’s roots in teen fantasy romance fiction. Like Twilight (2008), the intensity of emotion is what hooked its target audience, which complements the assertion that compassion is humanity’s greatest weapon when it comes to survival. A heartening message underlining a deeply affecting and stimulating film.