The Hunger Games (2012)

Hugely anticipated YA adaptation with the one and only Jennifer Lawrence. She’s brilliant, if you didn’t already know.

jennifer-lawrence-final-hunger-games-poster

Plot synopsis: In the future, the all-conquering Capitol reigns over the twelve districts of Panem. As punishment for their uprising decades before, one teenage boy and girl from each district are randomly chosen to fight to the death in an annual televised contest known as The Hunger Games. When the younger sister of sixteen-year old Katniss Everdeen is chosen to be the girl ‘tribute’ for District 12, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the games. So begins the seventy-fourth Hunger Games…

I’ve been a fan of the Hunger Games ever since I picked up the first book in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy a couple of weeks ago. Seriously, these books are like Skittles, Pringles or crack cocaine – mentally addictive. Three books and one film in two weeks and I’ve officially become obsessed, and to be honest, I’ve definitely had my fill of sadistic game shows (although I did catch a bit of Britain’s Got Talent last night), but it’s all been worth it. The Hunger Games is the first young adult/children/publishing phenomenon I’ve completely fallen for – I started reading Harry Potter but gave up on the books and decided to go with the films instead, and the films are all great, but they haven’t taken over my life. As for Twilight, I never read the books but find the films perversely watchable in a Sunday morning Hollyoaks-omnibus kind of way.

The Hunger Games however, have completely enraptured me – Collins knows how to engineer suspense – I had to do that thing where I cover my hand over the last sentence of each chapter so that my eyes don’t betray me and spoil another killer reveal or shock moment. The idea of the death-as-entertainment game is not new, and neither is the device of using teenagers, as the many fans of cult book/film Battle Royale have keenly pointed out. Yet it all feels fresh and exciting, and in lead hero Katniss Everdeen, we have someone irresistible to root for. Not a perfect character by any means, she’s flawed, stubborn, sometimes selfish, but she’s human, and I was with her all the way. Quite literally too – the trilogy is a first-person narrative told entirely from her point-of-view.

Anticipation for this cinematic adaptation has been huge for fans of the books – for newcomers like me, I’ve only been on tenterhooks for a few weeks. As for everybody else, they’re probably like Hunger, Hungry, Hungry Hippos what? Whether this film will pass on into common cinematic parlance in the same way as Harry Potter or Twilight remains to be seen, but it deserves to. It’s a strong, punchy, very effective adaptation, yet it’s not the equal of the book.

Let me digress; when it comes to film adaptations of novels, I usually happen to see the film before the reading the book, and even then, I usually never bother with the book unless the film was substantially different. I’ve deliberately avoided seeing recent stuff like The Woman in Black or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy until I’ve read the books (and in the case of Tinker, the film will be further delayed until I’ve watched the supposedly superior BBC TV version from the late seventies), but I plan on reading, say, Paul F. Wilson’s Nazi-horror story The Keep because, even though I’ve already seen the cult eighties film adaptation the novel is meant to be hugely different.

So, it’s been weird approaching The Hunger Games film. A novel can only bring so much to the experience – you, the reader, will do the rest, and so when it comes to seeing it on screen, you’re amazed by how sometimes what’s on screen matches what the book inspired in your imagination, or, disoriented when it’s completely different. Either way, a personal experience novel-wise becomes public on-screen, and it took a while for me to get over that transition whilst watching this film.

First-person narratives have the biggest challenge of all in making a smooth transition to screen. So much in the book is driven from Katniss’ thoughts and internal decisions, and this has proved too difficult for the film makers to attempt – most affected is her relationship with fellow District 12 tribute Peeta. The contestants’ success in the Games depends partly on their popularity with the viewers watching across the country (as well as the ‘sponsors’ whose decision to parachute down a vital medicine or desperately needed bottle of water could save their lives); and when it becomes clear that Katniss and Peeta’s popularity is down to the ‘star-crossed lovers’ angle that they’ve (involuntarily in the case of Katniss) adopted, Katniss realises that she must play up her relationship with Peeta in order to make her a favourite with everybody at home. This is a major dramatic hook in the novel, yet here it is substantially reduced, though not eliminated.

Plot wise the film doesn’t differ too greatly, though many supporting characters and incidental moments have been altered/removed. This is given I suppose with adaptations – hours and hours of reading time condensed to just two or so hours of screen time, plus the logistics of putting on screen convincingly the more out-there stuff that effortlessly worked on the page. This might be why no film adaptation of a book will ever be totally satisfactory – comparisons can never be avoided, and as such, the best you can usually hope for a film version is that it adapts its source with respect. So now I try and review The Hunger Games as a film and not an adaptation.

Jennifer Lawrence, who was great in indie-gem Winter’s Bone a few years ago, works wonders as Katniss; she’s perfect in the role. Her character here isn’t actually too different from hers in Winter’s Bone – I swear, both of her introductory scenes aren’t too different. She’s an elder sister caring for her younger sibling while her mother sits by hopelessly lost, and both are thrown into an unavoidable situation thanks to their poverty and circumstances. She’s tough, resourceful and sympathetic. Liam Hemsworth (younger brother of Thor’s Chris) doesn’t have an awful lot to do as Gale, her best friend from the district, but this should change with the sequels. Josh Hutcherson is very good as Peeta, though the ambiguities of his potentially duplicitous character are overly-smoothed out here. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson are solid as Katniss and Peeta’s PR rep and tutor respectively, and thanks to a few added scenes, Donald Sutherland gets more to do with the Capitol’s quietly dangerous President Snow than he would have if the film followed the strict first-person narrative of the book (in other words, not much at all). Stanley Tucci has a great time as the super-tanned host of the show, and Lenny Kravitz acquits himself commendably in a mellow performance as Katniss’ fashion designer (remember, these contestants may be about to die, but they’re on TV, so they’ve got to look good). The fellow contenders in The Hunger Games itself are sketchier creations – appropriately fearsome, evil, sweet and unpredictable, but not too memorable sadly, although Alexander Ludwig is enjoyably horrible as chief bad tribute Cato, who gleefully takes on the challenge of the games with bloodthirsty relish.

As for the violence; this was always going to be a tricky issue, since the book is pretty violent, easily the equivalent of a tough 15-rated film. Here in the UK, seven seconds of blood and gore have been digitally removed to get an audience-friendly 12 certificate, but even without those removals, it’s clear that the uncut version (when I do finally see it) will still be a compromise of the novel’s brutality. Director Gary Ross cleverly films around the violence so that we feel but don’t see too much, but sometimes the head-spinning movement of the camera is a little too distancing, and we don’t appreciate just how vicious the proceedings are. The opening rush of violence at the start of the games is pretty well done, though at times it’s hard to see just what’s going on. The film is guilty of the kind of rapid editing that means it’s difficult to work out who’s doing what to whom – the worst instance of this is during the final punch-up. It doesn’t help that the scene takes place at night either. Still, for a 12 film, this is pretty tough stuff.

This is a very good thriller – Lawrence is terrific and the suspense throughout is formidable, though fans of the book will most likely be left wanting.

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