The Hunger Games
Opens Friday at Dunbar, The Park and Scotiabank
With Harry Potter’s magical reign ended and Bella Swan about to head into the twilight for good, the time is ripe for another teen-lit-inspired blockbuster.
But it would be foolhardy to dismiss The Hunger Games as merely another teen flick or a sequel-spawning moneymaker (there are four films planned). The dystopian version of a future that pits a “have” minority against the “have-not” majority resonates equally with taxpaying grown-ups and loyal teen HG fans. Indeed, on a recent flight, I observed three adults reading books in the series, while the remainder read about the film’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, who graced the cover of the in-flight magazine.
Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games has sold more than 23.5 million copies in the U.S. alone, crossing the age demographics mentioned above and hurdling gender barriers, too: it’s a weapons-filled fight to the death among 24 teens, where the biggest competitor just happens to be a girl.
Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old living in bleak, impoverished District 12. In order to keep her mother and sister Prim (Willow Shields) from starving, Katniss uses the skills her late father taught her, by hunting out-of-bounds with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) for game to sell on the district’s thriving black market.
Once a year the struggle for survival is interrupted by mandatory viewing of the Hunger Games, in which a boy and girl from each district of Panem between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen by lottery to compete in a fight to the death. The Games are meant to remind the districts of the ancient thwarted rebellion against the omnipotent Capitol. There is only one victor, and it’s been decades since District 12 had one.
When, against great odds, Prim’s name is drawn, Katniss volunteers to stand in her stead. The boy chosen from her district is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with whom Katniss shares an early history. The pair is whisked to the Capitol, the vision of frivolity and excess, where a team of garish stylists (led by Lenny Kravitz) waxes, teases and dresses them for the viewing masses.
After a brief training, where Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a mentor from District 12, manages a few words of wisdom in his rare moments of sobriety, it’s off the the arena. Half of the players are killed off in the initial bloodshed, while Katniss runs for the forest. The arena is an enviornment carefully controlled by technicians and the head gamemaker (Wes Bentley); fireballs and killer bees are deployed whenever the action lags, hidden cameras record every moment.
Katniss’ only hope for survival is to change the script to save herself and others. These early hints of rebelliousness are sensed by the menacing President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
The action is more or less constant, interrupted by the behind-the-scenes look at gamemakers’ manoeuvering, as well as commentary by two on-camera experts (Stanley Tucci, in blue bouffant, and Toby Jones).
Director Gary Ross is limited somewhat by the PG violence, which is implied rather than splashed all over the arena, but the brutality still comes across.
The film is anchored by Lawrence, whose 21 easily passes for 16, and who finds the perfect balance of hardness and vulnerability.
Parallels between Panem’s governmental corruption and our present-day civil unrest can’t be denied, but it’s our shared appetites for real and exploitative entertainment that is most evident. There are calls for Survivor’s “outwit, outplay, outlast” to get more gritty, while we’re fed a steady diet of ultimate fighting and housewives pulling out each others’ hair. “If no one watches, then they don’t have a game,” says Gale in The Hunger Games. How far would gamemakers have to go to make you turn the channel?