Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Hungry for More of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games...but not as you know it.

Okay, so The Hunger Games was very, very good indeed.

For those who don’t know, The Hunger Games is based on the first of a trilogy of highly successful young adult novels by Suzanne Collins and is set in a distant future where after a terrible war in North America a new nation called Panem now exists. Panem’s rich and decadent Capitol rules over 12 impoverished districts who every year are made to send one male and one female child to compete in an epic televised fight to the death: the titular Hunger Games. In the grim and grey District 12 sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her terrified little sister, joining Baker’s son Peeta as the District’s two contestants in the year's upcoming games. We then follow gifted hunter Katniss as she negotiates the bewildering (to her) decadence of the Capitol while also training for the games, appearing on live TV chat shows, trying to entice sponsors, before finally getting dropped in to the midst of the brutal and barbaric games themselves.

The Hunger Games has been talked about as the next Twilight/Harry Potter - the next huge YA book-to-movie series. But to my mind this is as far removed from Harry Potter and what little I've seen of the shallow and shoddy Twilight as you can get. For a start, it is sci fi and not magical/fantasy/supernatural shenanigans. Plus it's unashamedly old fashioned in the way it has been made, being non flashy, steadily paced and made with an indie/1970's feel that emphasis strong storytelling, strong relatable characters, inventive editing and plenty of smarts and depth. It has ideas, themes, questions to ask, points to make. It wants its audience to think. In short, The Hunger Games is actually about something.

But The Hunger Games’ greatest weapon is its star.

As Katniss, the movie and book’s young heroine, Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic. Jennifer was fab in X-Men: First Class as young Raven and was stunning in Winter's Bone (for which she was deservedly Oscar nominated). In fact, a lot of her work in THG is very similar to that of Winter's Bone. The entire first act of THG could almost be Winter's Bone 2 – a rural, poverty stricken and grim setting; a tough but sensitive teenage girl saddled with a useless parent and who has to effectively bring up her younger sibling and provide for her family under miserably harsh conditions. Even the score is similar being all low key and folksy. But when Katniss and her co-competitor, Peeta, get to the Capitol, this all changes. Things become rather flashy, gaudy and overblown in order to contrast the under-the-heel poverty of the outlying Districts with the decadence and shallowness of the Capitol, a place so ghastly that for entertainment it makes twenty four kids fight to the death each and every year.

At 2hrs 20mins The Hunger Games is a lengthy film. The pacing is slow and steady. But what it is showing us, what it is doing is always utterly engrossing, taking its time to build the world, the characters and the relationships. It never drags. Plus Woody Harrelson is in it and is pretty darn great, as is Elisabeth Banks as the wonderfully shallow Effie Trinket. But this movie belongs wholly to Jennifer Lawrence. As Katniss she manages to be caring, brave and cleverly resourceful while always staying angry, vulnerable and just plain terrified by the situation she finds herself in. I wouldn't be surprised if she gets a second Oscar nod for her work here. In my humble opinion Lawrence is possibly the finest talent of her generation currently working in movies. She’s an actor where you can see so much going on behind her eyes, on her face, in her body language. She sells the character and the situation utterly. This makes her a compelling presence to watch. She has grit and a palpable inner strength, which was so very obvious in Winter’s Bone. I predict a long and illustrious career for this young lady. I just hope she keeps picking varied and interesting projects.

And now to the actual games themselves.

Set in a huge forest arena with cameras hidden in trees, genetically modified wasps and killer dogs, the games are about as shocking and brutal as you can get in a 12A film. I have to say I winced a few times. I mean, they have little kids - not just teens - who kill and get killed! The initial melee when all of the kids are first released in to the game area is stunning. Shot with virtually no sound it’s lots and lots of panicky shaky camera work and quick edits of kids killing other kids with rocks, knives, swords, bare hands. There was one brief shot of what is a little blond girl - maybe 10/11 – lying on her back on the ground with a bigger teen boy standing over her about to start bludgeoning her to death. Luckily the camera cuts away before the first blow hits, but it still made me cringe. It’s shocking, affecting but thankfully not gratuitous. And it carries on like that for the rest of the film with the kids slowly being whittled down until the last two remain.

There’s lots going on here, lots of comment about reality television, about how the media glamorises violence, about how we send teenagers to war to get maimed and killed often for no good reason. And about how kids regularly killing other kids – be it in gangs or in school massacres - has become a horribly regular real life phenomena. Of course there’s nothing original in any of this. Battle Royale did the adults making kids kill each other thing ten years ago (though in BR it is all older teens and is so bloody and over the top to be kinda silly). And Robocop and The Running Man amongst others have done reality TV going too far. But the concept and its related themes and the questions raised are always worth repeating if done well. And they are done very well here. As I’ve said before, to my mind the very best genre books/films/TV are really all about people, about who we are and how we relate to each other. And about the world we are currently living in as well as the future world we are busy making for ourselves. The Hunger Games fits squarely in to that camp.

Major kudos then to director Gary (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) Ross and to screenwriters Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray for making a grown up, intelligent, provocative movie.

Go see it.

And may the odds be ever in your favour.

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