The Hunger Games,
directed by Gary Ross
(Lionsgate, 2012)

It's a hard-luck life for the residents of 12 outlying districts in Panem, the futuristic North American nation of The Hunger Games.

A few generations ago, those districts rebelled against their government and were promptly swatted down. Now, those districts each year are required to send two teenagers -- a boy and a girl, selected by lottery -- as tribute to participate in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death that plays out on reality TV.

A brief clip from last year's games shows one boy bludgeoning another to death with a brick, so you know right away it's not going to be pretty.

In District 12, a coal-mining region that seems poorer than most, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) holds her family together after her father's death in the mines. Her mother (Paula Malcomson) has a tenuous grip on sanity, and her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) appears to have all the fortitude of a sapling. So when Primrose is selected in the lottery, Katniss boldly volunteers to take her place in the 74th annual games.

She is paired with the second lottery "winner," Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who admits from the start that he lacks Katniss's mad survival skills and will be easy fodder for the other players. They are shipped off to the capital for a brief glimpse of the decadent luxury and peacockery there, amid some hasty training and various interviews and staged events designed to whip the TV audience into a frenzy.

Their only allies there are Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the effervescent hostess of District 12's lottery; Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), their surprisingly sympathic stylist (costuming is more important than you might think); and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former winner of the games from District 12, now a middle-aged drunk, who is required to prepare Katniss and Peeta for the main event.

The film maintains a low-grade sense of tension through the first hour, as you are introduced to the various characters who, by the nature of the story, will be dead before the end. Some are likable, some not, but all are painfully young.

That tension rachets up several notches when the game begins, more than an hour into the movie, with a fast-moving and shaky montage of the initial bloodbath. Eight hours into the game, 13 teens have been brutally killed in a sprawling arena that incorporates a vast forest.

Katniss, of course, is not among the dead, making a quick escape into the woods while others scrabble and die over weapons and supplies. Peeta, too, survives the opening salvo, allying himself with a gang of alpha gamers who plan to eliminate the rabble before turning on each other for the final round.

Everything in the artificial forest environment is monitored by cameras, and a vast army of technicians keep the most interesting scenes on screen for their viewers at home. Sometimes they introduce external elements into the game -- such as an inferno or a pack of man-killing dogs -- that seem to defeat the competitive purpose of the game, but it underscores the fact that there are no rules so long as the audience is entertained. (Funny thing, though: no one ever seemed all that hungry.)

The Hunger Games does a surprisingly good job of keeping you at the edge of your seat. You feel the danger, you mourn (some of) the deaths and you reel from the very plausible concept of a society where reality TV has taken a fatal turn.

Acting here is exceptional. Lawrence and Hutcherson really click in their roles; Lawrence in particular has a lot of solo screen time, and she sells her desperation and resolve in equal portions. Harrelson and Kravitz provide strong supporting characters, as do Stanley Tucci as over-the-top show host Caesar Flickerman, Wes Bentley as gamemaster Seneca Crane and Donald Sutherland as the ruthless President Snow. Special note must go to Amandla Stenberg who, as the young tribute Rue, makes you feel her mischief and innocence with only a few brief moments on screen. (Stenberg also has weathered a firestorm of controversy, as racist audience members -- in real life, not the movie setting -- complained bitterly that a black actress was cast to play a black character. Unreal.)

The movie is based on a novel by Suzanne Collins, who co-wrote the screenplay. I haven't read the books, although my wife enjoyed them and my daughter is currently devouring them with unusual enthusiasm. There are three books in the series; two movie sequels are planned.

review by
Tom Knapp

28 April 2012

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