As a plot device, people killing people for others’ entertainment has been done, done and done. Battle Royale, The Running Man, Tron, Gamer… even Gladiator. I could go on. So what makes The Hunger Games stand out above these? Truthfully… I don’t know, and I am not even sure that it does. But it’s definitely one of the better examples.
Firstly, a disclaimer. I made the rare (for me) decision to read the book just before seeing the film, so I have to say some objectivity may have been lost in this review, as I had grown attached to the characters before they even appeared on-screen. I enjoyed- but didn’t completely love- the book, and the film was a pretty faithful adaptation. [I do have issues with the changes to the ending that I won’t address here for spoiler reasons. Maybe in the comments.]
The film is a strange concoction of contradictions. The story is oddly intriguing and yet rather uneventful. It manages to be both predictable and surprising, playing with your expectations before ripping the rug from under your feet, and then sneaking it back again.
The build-up is slow, but, as with all book adaptations, the film feels like it’s on fast-forward if you’ve read the source material, whilst the uninitiated may be left a bit wanting. The visual effects veer from almost comically bad to completely convincing, but the direction is cohesive and effective.
The biggest praise, however, must go to the casting. Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and (an unrecognisable) Elizabeth Banks ham it up just enough without overdoing it, and Josh Hutcherson remains one to watch (see my Journey 2 review), making the most of his best acting showcase since (the amazing) Bridge to Terabithia.
Just a couple of years go, Jennifer Lawrence was Oscar-nominated for Winter’s Bone and would have received my vote (over Natalie Portman). She then made for a sympathetic Mystique in the fantastic X Men First Class. But would the curvy blonde cut it as a starved hunter? Truthfully, yes. Every moment is played with complete sincerity, and you’re never watching “a performance”, and I can’t think of a higher compliment.
And yes, I’m reading “Catching Fire”… which I hope to be praising here in 20 months’ time…