The Hunger Games (2012) – Revisited

The Hunger Games - 2012 - 1

Directed by – Gary Ross
Written by – Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins & Billy Ray
Based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins
Starring – Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Alexander Ludwig, Lenny Kravitz & Donald Sutherland

Catching Fire is less than a week away, which means now is the perfect time to take another look at the first entry in the Hunger Games saga to see if it still stands up to scrutiny.

Click here to see my previous review

For me The Hunger Games is a film that is unfairly criticised for what it doesn’t do, rather than for what it does, and despite its obvious flaws it’s actually pretty entertaining. When I first sat down to watch it almost fifteen months ago, I thoroughly expected to hate every single second; after all, it’s a love-story based on a piece of youth fiction… not exactly what you might call “my kind of film” then. Yet, 150 minutes later, I was quite impressed with what I’d seen even though I had reservations about whether it could withstand a rewatch.

Well, on second-viewing the film’s lack of originality is much more apparent than it was first time round, as classics from Lord of the Flies to The Running Man, from Battle Royale to Rollerball, and pretty much everything in between are mimicked – and subsequently simplified – in some shape or form, though the fault for this lies not with the film but with the source material which is derivative in itself. Nevertheless, like the recent Tom Cruise picture Oblivion (which was the cinematic equivalent of a jigsaw, made up of all the best bits of better films), a lack of originality doesn’t necessarily mean that the film isn’t entertaining. In fact, one of the reasons I like The Hunger Games so much is because it is so recognisably dystopian; it feels like an homage to the genre, albeit one made for an audience that might not have much experience of classic science-fiction, though I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

You see, the thing with The Hunger Games is that it knows its audience perfectly but refuses – at least in terms of the central violent conceit – to pander to or patronise them. The love-triangle element of the story is overplayed and poorly handled, but when the film focuses on the games themselves it is actually pretty good. Once one accepts a reduction in the level of gore from what you might expect of a true Battle Royale rip-off, the film manages to maintain a cynical sense of dread pretty much all the way through. Children are slain and teenagers are beaten, maimed and slaughtered in a film that pulls no punches when it comes to violence. The target audience is asked to watch as members of their age-group are killed in the name of entertainment, which is a horrific concept when you think about it for more than a second. A number of people argue that the film is too tame but to those people I have to ask; what were you expecting? Is the death of 22 children not enough for you!?

The Hunger Games - 2013 - Love Triangle

However, as much as I respect The Hunger Games for what it manages to achieve, it is a bit of an awkward film. For starters, the Katniss-Peeta love story is terribly written; it feels false, shallow and empty, and neither Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, X-Men: First Class) nor Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabithia, Detention) seem to believe in that element of the plot, thus their performances suffer. The addition of Liam Hemsworth (Empire State, The Expendables 2) – who plays a minor role in this part of the franchise – adds nothing to the story (other than a few shots of his character brooding in the background…), and in a similar manner to How I Live Now (which I reviewed recently), the romantic element of the film works to undermine much of the gritty realism. It’s tough to take what’s happening in the arena seriously when, deep down, the film is primarily concerned with the romance between the two main characters. At times the romance almost undoes much of the initial dread as it becomes clear quite early on that neither Katniss nor Peeta are in any real danger because without them the love-triangle will turn to dust. As violent as certain parts of the film might be, nothing about what happens – or who lives/dies – is remotely surprising.

Similarly, though I like the film’s dystopian setting, the imagery is much too heavy-handed. The film takes over an hour to get into the games, before which we are introduced to the themes and background of the story in an irritatingly lazy way. It’s all predictable stuff; a revolution gone wrong, a society crippled by inequality and a form of entertainment that both appeals to and appeases the masses in equal measure. We’ve seen it all before and, crucially, we’ve seen it all done better before but that’s not the real problem. For me, the first hour is over-indulgent yet utterly lacking in meaning. The gloss of the Capitol mirrors the gloss of the film; it all looks fantastic but it doesn’t really mean anything. Conversations about life and death, the purpose of the games and the desire for change all feel contrived because of the obvious nature of the imagery. I know the film is meant to appeal to “the yoof” and, as such, a certain degree of simplicity is to be expected but I did find the metaphorical shrieks of “oh look how awful it all is!” a tad overbearing.

The Hunger Games - 2013 - 2

Nevertheless, once the games do get going and the pseudo-intellectual imagery is left behind, The Hunger Games is genuinely thrilling. The trivialisation of the situation that the love-triangle causes is outweighed by the brutality of the action, particularly near the end of the film. The characters inside the arena are relatively well-written, though Cato – the lead villain, played by my future husband Alexander Ludwig (The Seeker, Race to Witch Mountain) – is one-dimensional to the point of parody. The to-ing and fro-ing between the arena and the outside World is well-handled, in large thanks to a decent performance by Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers, Zombieland) whose character attempt to protect Katniss from the outside. It’s not a masterpiece by any means but after a rewatch I was still impressed by what the film offered.

Ultimately, The Hunger Games does exactly what you want it to do. It’s far from perfect and it’s far too long but as a piece of popcorn entertainment I like it a great deal. I’m still unsure where the series can go without becoming staid but I’m now very much looking forward to finding out. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take quite as long getting to the action this time around…

★★★

Review also posted on Letterboxd