The Hunger Games
Directed By: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci
Short review, for those of you in a hurry: I went to see The Hunger Games over the weekend with my wife and teenage daughter. Leaving the cinema afterwards, we turned to each other and, almost in perfect unison, declared, “That’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life!”
Somewhat longer review, for the purpose of putting half a loaf of bread on the family table: I enjoyed The Hunger Games, the novel by Suzanne Collins. The girls in the family liked it too. It’s a fine book, a well-written story about a future, post-apocalyptic America, divided into 12 districts and ruled from the Capitol with an iron fist. Every year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from among the dirt poor residents of each District, and sent to compete in the Hunger Games. This serves as punishment for a rebellion many years back, and a reminder of just who’s boss. And of course, it is also entertainment for the masses.
The Games take place in a controlled, hostile environment, where the 24 kids must fight to the death, until there’s only one left standing. The action is broadcast live, 24 hours a day, and the victor is guaranteed a life of wealth and fame. Or at least a decent house, and enough money to keep their family from dying of malnutrition like everyone else. The winner also becomes a mentor to future competitors from the District. The kids who are chosen to fight in the Games are called tributes. When a group of them gets together to play music, this is called a tribute band.
The story also involves romance, a complicated love triangle between a girl and two boys from District 12. The girl, Katniss, is played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence, a very talented actress who was nominated for an Oscar last year for her excellent performance in Winter’s Bone. Katniss volunteers as a tribute in place of her little sister, Prim (Willow Shields), whose name is drawn from the bowl against all the usual odds. The male tribute is Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), the baker’s son, with whom Katniss has a certain history, and a future that involves a fair amount of pretending. Back in the District, Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) watches while his old friend and hunting buddy Katniss becomes one half of a golden couple, star-crossed lovers smooching and killing to stay alive, for the amusement of the audience at home.
In the right hands, The Hunger Games would play as a cross between Survivor, Big Brother, Gladiator and The Running Man, by way of American Idol. Though a better talent show comparison might be The Voice, where at least they’re honest enough to call the competition a battle, a fight that even takes place in a ring. Unfortunately, on The Voice, there is no physical violence to distract from the musical torture.
There is no good reason why The Hunger Games shouldn’t work on the big screen, especially considering the author herself contributed to the screenplay. The book provides any number of perfect, ready-made cinema set pieces – the Reaping, the tribute parade, the opening battle, the death of a certain young girl, and the final scene in the arena, just to name a few. But director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) gets every one of them wrong, draining them of all their drama, emotion, chemistry, and spectacle. If there is a single word to describe the film, it is flat. Just, flat.
And that’s not the whining of a book fan. It’s true that Ross and his writers left a character or two on the cutting room floor, and reworked sections of the story for no good reason. But that’s to be expected. The problem is not that Mr. Ross is not faithful to the novel. It’s simply that he can’t shoot a scene to save his life. It doesn’t help that he is so very fond of that shaky camera, either, those epileptic shots that will leave you cross-eyed and nauseous. You can see why he might have gone down that road, trying to shoot convincing, mostly bloodless amateur battle scenes for a ratings-friendly audience, on a relatively small budget, most of which seems to have been spent on the gaudy Capitol city. Still, there’s no excuse for making heads spin for all the wrong reasons.
Most of the cast do a decent job. Lawrence doesn’t have to stretch herself, but she’s a convincing young heroine who will make a fine action star in the right film. Elizabeth Banks is spot on as the hideous Effie Trinket, Stanley Tucci is fun to watch as the flamboyant TV host Caesar Flickerman, and Donald Sutherland provides just the right hint of menace as Panem’s glorious leader, President Snow. On the fringes, Lenny Kravitz is unremarkable as Katniss’s designer Cinna, and Wes Bentley shows off a killer beard as Games head honcho, Seneca Crane.
But there are crucial characters who are treated poorly here. As District 12 mentor Haymitch, Woody Harrelson looks like he couldn’t be bothered, and in the little screen time he gets, Liam Hemsworth gives Gale all the genuine charisma of a shovel. But he’s a modern Brando compared with Josh Hutcherson, whose performance as Peeta can only be described as unfortunate. Well, that’s not entirely true. It can also be described as useless. And that doesn’t bode well for the sequels.
Given the kind of money The Hunger Games is making at the box office, the next instalment won’t be long in coming. With a bigger budget and a better crew at the helm, it might even be good.