The film industry nowadays is utterly saturated with novel adaptations, especially those that cater to the tweens-to-teens demographic. Twilight is perhaps one of the more infamous examples of this, yet it has undoubtedly shown us the financial success that translating juvenile writing to film can produce. The Harry Potter series has proved itself to be an enduring franchise that continues to impact our culture and the way we see movies. It has set the bar incredibly high for films of its kind, telling us that it’s okay to expect poignancy and dignity when it comes to young adult fare.
However, there always comes a challenger to the arena to try and disseat the magical franchise giant from its throne. Percy Jackson & the Olympians, I Am Number Four, etc. Most of these movies come and go without much notice and fail to resonate with their intended audience, speaking nothing of their overall quality. While Harry Potter was a juggernaut, though, the ride is now over. It’s just theme parks and special edition Blu-ray boxsets on the horizon. Having said that--and having seen The Hunger Games--there is one bit of wisdom I will offer in the wake of Harry Potter’s bygone existence.
Harry Potter is dead. Long live The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games is based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen, an emotionally subdued yet matriarchal caregiver to her sister and mother (played by Paula Malcolmson of Caprica awesomeness). Katniss also has a friend named Gale (notable only because it's Liam Hemsworth). Katniss exists in a society that is heavily split between the well-off people living in the Capitol and those living in the 12 Districts, Katniss residing in the 12th District. The Hunger Games is a competition in which contestants (called tributes) battle it out to the death. The one left standing receives eternal glory, rewards and enough food and supplies to last a lifetime. The Hunger Games are a yearly reminder to the 12 districts of the Capitol's authority and punishment for their rebellion over 70 years ago, in which the 13th district was allegedly destroyed.
Each District selects two contestants to compete, a male and a female 12-18. Doing the selecting is a sickeningly upbeat and ridiculously clad lady named Effie (as perhaps one of Elizabeth Banks' first character acting roles). Through a twist of fate, Katniss’ sister Primrose is selected, but Katniss volunteers to go in her place. Selected at random to go along with Katniss is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a bread-maker from town. The two are sent to the Capitol to train in the Hunger Games, where their relationship is fleshed out. On the train heading to the Capitol, they meet Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who is both a hilarious drunk and, in fact, the only living victor from District 12. It’s here where The Hunger Games comes into its own and, like the contestants themselves, shows us what it’s made of.
Every film needs a strength that sets it apart from those before it. There is the old cliché that nothing is original anymore, but then a film like The Dark Knight comes along and knocks people on their asses. Now, how does that happen? The film made itself memorable... or Chris Nolan did. Whatever. The point is, The Hunger Games does just that. What sets it apart from all these teeny bopper flicks that came before it is that it is visceral and unrelenting. Even scenes where the action is nonexistent, such as a TV interview, become an endurance round, and it literally keeps you on the edge of your seat. The direction as a whole is played so that you empathize with Katniss’ experience during this competition. Because of this “strength,” Gary Ross’ direction can be quite bold. One hectic action scene, for example, was shown without any sound effects what-so-ever and merely had a slight tonal score to accompany it. What’s amazing is how much more brutal the scene felt because of this choice.
The entire film feels like an amalgam with equal parts First Blood, Runner and Gamer, and I mean all that as the biggest compliment I can possibly give. The sheer brutality in this film--how some of the other kids in the games not only try to seek out and kill their fellow contestants, they actually seem to get off on it--is warrant enough for an R rating. Despite this, it received a PG-13 rating, and all they had to do was take out a few seconds of blood. Because that’s what really messes up kids, right? Blood. I can’t imagine how much more brutal some of these scenes would have been if left untouched, but I don’t think anything was sacrificed, since the execution (no pun intended) is just phenomenal. I really don't know where else to mention this, but it's worth mentioning that Stanley Tucci is hilarious in this movie as Caesar Flickerman, this society's Leno/Letterman lovechild with a ridiculously cheesy grin to boot. It must be seen.
It should be noted that the direction isn't purely visceral or action-packed. Nothing here feels overdone or undercooked. It's like a delicious meal, perfectly seasoned. What's important here is that there is an emotional underbelly to this film that takes it a few steps above your typical teen drama. Subtlety is the name of the game, and it comes as no big surprise, since Gary Ross also directed Pleasantville, a fantastical allegorical adventure with underlying tones of racism and bigotry. Ross knows how to tell an emotional story, and The Hunger Games shows us he still has what it takes to pull at your heart strings.
I shared an opinion I had the other day with a friend of mine about how disappointing it is how modern films can’t seem to grasp the concept of cinematic tension and build-up. It’s pathetic how TV shows like Breaking Bad are capable of creating palpable tension, while movies like Green Lantern (which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make) are a complete and utter bore. It was a problem I felt reverberated throughout Hollywood itself; how it was too concerned with producing “outstanding visuals” and “state-of-the-art special effects,” rather than producing a meaningful story and a solid script. The Hunger Games is an anomaly, since it has elements of both, seemingly incongruous with its origin in the Young Adult section in your local bookstore, yet containing them all the same.
Take this as payment for an IOU from Hollywood itself. The Hunger Games is not just good. It raises the bar yet again, mere feet away from where that magical boy with glasses once resided. I can imagine Harry Potter crossing his arms and nodding, saying simply, “Not bad.”
Matthew Razak: As one who has read and become a little obsessed with The Hunger Games books, I can tell you that this film does everything it possibly can to satisfy the fans. In fact any gripes that I have with it stem from the fact that it couldn't be four hours long and that it can't be in first person like the books. The latter leads to a few more issues because the film cuts outside of the games a bit too often for my taste, especially when the books are so confined to simply Katniss' thoughts. It takes you out of the action a few too many times and there's one major change that really shifts the themes of the first book. However, these are small gripes for a film that is paced perfectly, wonderfully shot and directed and shows a passion for the books it is based on while still realizing it needs to be a movie. 84 - Great
Allistair Pinsof: I'm all for kid-on-kid violence. Harry Potter meets Battle Royale meets Ender's Game? Hell yes! Sign me up! Surprisingly, it wasn't the action that kept me invested in The Hunger Games. Rather, it was the world-building, characters, and slow progression toward the teenager slaughter that made this film worth watching. Oddly enough, the action is what keeps it from higher marks. Gary Ross, whether out of bad directorial taste or seeking a PG-13 rating, shoots the action scenes with one of the most nauseating steadycams I've seen in ages. Moments that should have weight and tension are instead just confusing and goofy. In comparison to Battle Royale's glorious fights, this film's action moments look like garbage. It doesn't help that the second half of the film is disjointed and awkwardly paced (as if it was adapted from a book!) The Hunger Games started strong, but I have little interest in a sequel after such a lackluster third act. 72 - Good
Jenika Katz: I've been a big fan of books since I read them last year, and the casting and marketing campaign were not inspiring a lot of confidence in what the movies would do. Was Jennifer Lawrence the right choice for Katniss? Would the films focus on the romantic subplot instead of the important stuff? Every movie adaptation has to cut something, but would they leave in the right scenes? Fans of the books, rest easy: this adaptation is in good hands. The important parts are still intact, and the changes made feel necessary and don't negatively impact the film. The movie takes you out of Katniss' head and into the action, making every scene keep you on your toes even when you know exactly what's going to happen. The pacing has actually improved from the book, which bodes well for the later movies. My only problems with the movie are admittedly fanboy nitpicking, and overall, I feel like this series is really going places. 84 - Great