Sure, films based on books that were marketed to children and young adults tend to do well at the box office (think of all the Twilights and Harry Potters). Even when they don't set the cinematic world on fire they are still given the multi-million dollar film treatment (for instance, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief). By their very nature this genre of movies tend to be fluff and when they aren't fun they attempt to teach the audience lessons on what it means to be human despite the teacher being a witch, vampire, or Greek God. However none of the films, despite at times displaying impressive special effects*, are contenders for a certain award that is all gold, challenged in the follicle department and allegedly named after someone's uncle. The Hunger Games is good and I dare write; I'm naming it a contender for next year's Academy Award for Best Picture.
As source material for the film The Hunger Games the book by Suzanne Collins is not an easy sell. It's about a Survivor like game where the participants are chosen from twelve districts (all between the ages of twelve and eighteen -- one boy, one girl) of a dystopian nation called Panem (located in the former United States). Panem is controlled by the Capital (a city of technological marvels) and the games are retribution for an uprising that took place 74 years before. The object of the Game is to outsmart and outlast the other tributes (participants) and to do so by killing your opponents is highly encouraged (weapons of all sorts are provided). Thus yes, the story can be summed up by the idea of children killing children; however that would be selling the tale desperately short. In fact The Hunger Games is a hard story to summarize because it lends itself to allegories and metaphors galore.
Like the books, the film centers on Katniss Everdeen (look for Katniss to become a popular girls' name in the future) who is overly stoic for all of her sixteen years. When we meet Katniss she is the unstated head of the household with an emotionally challenged mother and younger sister named Prim. Her father died in the coal mines so she takes to the Appalachian Mountains (District 12) to illegally hunt with her best friend Gale (a guy). She would take Gale up on the offer to run away if it was possible to bring her gentler but less hardy sister along yet both know that won't be happening any time soon. Besides, they have the reaping to attend,
which is where the participants for the games are selected by lottery. Suffice to say, the odds aren't in Katniss' favor.
To the credit of the filmmakers (Collins was one of the screenwriters) the movie doesn't simply focus on the events that strictly happened during the first book, but sets up the story arch for the series therefore some events (even ones that readers loved like when a loaf of bread was sent to Katniss by another district) aren't in the film. In place of the absent material there is a more fully told story about the producer of the Hunger Games, Seneca Crane. Although this might disappoint some fans of the novel, it does enlighten plot points found in the other two books.
If the film didn't have Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss it would be a far weaker endeavor. Like her breakout role in Winter's Bone (which was filmed in southern Missouri) Lawrence can step into the shoes of the strong every woman character but remain engaging to an audience. I know there are a lot of people who despise Kristen Stewart for simply playing the role of Bella Swan, but I'm not one of them. I actually think she is a decent actress; however Lawrence takes the acting of a young adult heroine role to the next level. When she is in a tube being raised to enter the games her unease was such that I almost had an empathic anxiety attack. Even when she is subtle you can read her emotions simply from the way she breathes and holds her eyes. And these emotions aren't merely about finding and losing the love of her life, they are about surviving and the challenge of figuring out just how to do that. Can she trust Peeta Mellark (the boy selected from District 12, portrayed by Josh Hutcherson) or are his words of sentiment a way to gain advantage against her in the game?
Here is where the story evolves from the hot young adult fiction franchise of the moment to something else. Beyond the Survivor element of it, there is this sickening American Idol part. Not only do these tributes have to compete they also have to "sell" themselves to an audience that includes odds makers and sponsors who can gift them with such items as food and medicine. These young people come from third world type of environments to then be plucked and polished for media consumption. They are interviewed by a Ryan Seacreast/sports commentator (played to perfection by Stanley Tucci) who smiles and gives them reassuring pats that encourage them to do their best despite their impending slaughter. Because the participants are guided to be likeable they appear to be all charm and confidence. The masses in the Capital perceive it as good fun that these district strays are treated as ephemera to be worshiped for fifteen minutes and then buried. On the surface everyone can see it isn't right however tradition, authoritative rule, fear, compliance and the sense that the circus is in town keeps those that can do something about the Games from doing anything. Yet there are cracks in the foundation.
The controversy about The Hunger Games being rated PG 13 is because of the violence. Although the violence can be unsettling (as all violence should if truth be told) it isn't as bad as the books, but parents should be aware. Although the opening weekend proved that the movie has wide appeal beyond just fans of the novels, it isn't a film that I would label as family friendly. The combination of the violence and social-political themes means that I don't think children under ten should view it. I do think the film should be seen in the theater because it has tremendous impact for viewers. It is definitely a movie to see with friends or on dates, but be sure to have some plan to gather afterwards because it is a great film to discuss. For the next two movies I sincerely hope Gary Ross is kept as the director and that Collins will have a hand in the scripts. In other words, I hope Lionsgate doesn't make this a reality.
Overall, everyone associated with The Hunger Games has done something unique. They have taken a book aimed at the youth market and made it into something that is much more than a fantasy story. Through the combination of writing, acting, and directing they built a film that would stand on its own even if it wasn't based on a popular novel. Both the books and the movie deserve high praise.
Westerfield © 2012