The tagline on the film’s poster says ‘The world is watching THE HUNGER GAMES’ and it certainly is.
Suzanne Collins wrote a trilogy of novels that became worldwide bestsellers. Now the first book in the series – THE HUNGER GAMES – has been turned into a visionary film that has already smashed box office records and is being heralded as ‘the new Twilight’ phenomenon. I haven’t seen the Twilight movies (or read the books), so if there are any other similarities apart from the fact they’re both about teenagers, I couldn’t tell you. From the outside, that seems the only connection but the media does like to label things, so there you go. I also haven’t read the Collins’ novels.
So why did I go and see this film? One reason above any other – because I really like the work of writer/director Gary Ross. Having been very impressed with the two features he’s produced so far, the brilliantly evocative and surreal Pleasantville and the superbly recreated story of an underdog Seabiscuit, he has fused some of the best visual elements of those films – the abstract, colourful world of Pleasantville and the gritty, Depression-era style of Seabiscuit – and created something with this material (which nods to 1984, Battle Royale, The Truman Show and the underrated Series 7: The Contenders) that is definitely not your usual teen fare.
So how has he done it? Apart from the striking visual style and handheld camerawork to create an unsettling journey for us and its protagonist, he’s assembled a great cast to bring these characters to life. Jennifer Lawrence is the heroine Katniss Everdeen – whether she’ll ever do a performance as extraordinary as her standout turn in Winter’s Bone we’ll wait and see but she channels some of it here to drive this character and story through with a visceral power and vulnerability that holds the screen.
Matching her though as Peeta Mellark, the other tribute from her district is Josh Hutcherson following up his terrific performance as Laser, the son of The Kids Are All Right. He starts out as a character to almost dismiss because he doesn’t say much; then you realise how afraid he is, as he’s in Katniss’ shadow and knows he’s going to die, which then leads to one of the best scenes in the film, when he reveals a secret to Katniss and after that you really hope there could be some way that he’ll make it through this. Their forging of a friendship and possible relationship in order to survive under the gaze of the world is counterpointed nicely with Katniss’ friend left back at home, Gale Hawthorne played with quiet intensity by Liam Hemsworth.
Along with Stanley Tucci (fabulous as Games talk show host Caesar Flickerman), the awesome collection of actors in supporting roles includes Toby Jones, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz and the fantastic Woody Harrelson (the movie almost takes a breath when he appears) as one-time Games winner and now down but certainly not out trainer Haymitch Abernathy. It’s also a pleasure to see Wes Bentley back on screen after so long away as the current designer of the Games, Seneca Crane.
Credit must also go to Suzanne Collins though, for creating such a striking story to start with – a clever, sci-fi tale about a darker and more disturbing reality game show, where children between 12 and 18 go to almost certain death if they’re selected, all for entertainment and to teach the 12 districts that rose up against the state, never to even think of doing so again. Pretty strong stuff for a teenage novel. And the line that is repeated a number of times in the film, each one adding a kind of chilling intensity – “May the odds be ever in your favor” – does stay with you long after the end credits.
With CATCHING FIRE and MOCKINGJAY to continue and complete the trilogy, let’s hope that Gary Ross is asked back to put his visual flair into making those next two films as stunningly successful as this one has been.