When we are first introduced into the world of District 12, are met with images of the poverty disappearing into a raw green forest, guarded by a long de-electrificed fence, showing the escape that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) experiences when she illegally hunts. She experiences freedom that the district does not afford her.
This is in constrast to the horror of fending for her life in a similar green forest that the Hunger Games takes place in. The mockery and bastardisation of the freedom that she craves. This film presents disfranchisement at its most brutal, where a society takes what is treasured and human, and making it either into a joke or seeks its destruction.
This gonzo civilisation that is presented to us is completely allegorical, as the ruins of the United States, Panem, are controlled by denizens that could exist in ‘Brazil’, in a place called The Captiol, where neon highlights are the norm and renaissance had too much nuance. Every year, twenty four ‘tributes’ between the ages of 12 to 18 are randomly drawn in a lottery to take part in the Hunger Games: a fight to the death inside of a specialised arena. Controlled by gamemasters with a holographic board, headed by Seneca Cane (Wes Bentley) , they make sure that this proto-American Idol is a ratings hit for the inhabitants of Panem and a horror film for the districts.
At the reaping, Katniss’ sister Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen but Katniss offers herself in her stead. From there, Katniss is plucked from her world head first into a bullet train from her district to Panem, and into the lap of Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). He fashions her into an icon, ‘the girl who was on fire’ and makes the public adore her. This is not just a competition for blood, but for likeability, which is exploited by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a fellow Tribute from her district, building a ‘star-crossed lovers’ narrative. As they get ready, they do not know what they are going to face in the arena, but as the popular motto goes, ‘may the odds be ever in your favour’.
The satire the film presents isn’t particularly strong, but the film’s ambition brings in definition, and raises interesting questions about our society, and a warning of what we could potentially become. With Katniss, an outsider of this world acting as our surrogate, we can accept this world that we are thrust into. It is with relief that we find that her character is very well-defined.
Lawrence applies her steely sensibilities that she utilized in ‘Winter’s Bone’ with aplomb, though at time Katniss and Ree Dolly seem interchangeable personality wise. Her performance acts as the anchor for the story, while not to the same calibre as her performance in ‘Winter’s Bone’, her subtle facial movements and determination become the source of the film’s strength, especially when The Capitol and the games becoming too unrealistic. It is refreshing to see a film with a strong female character who isn’t built on sexuality or overly masculine traits, but she stands heads and shoulders over the rest of the cast. It is not that they are terrible, but in comparison to Katniss, their characters are not given the permanence to adequately invest into, giving the film a lack of dramatic density.
Some critics have complained that the violence feels a bit bloodless under the PG-13/12A rating (I disagree until the final action sequence), but there is something more problematic in the editing than this. The film feels simultaneously truncated and overburdened, as it sacrifices dramatic tension to appease fans of the novel. The film commits to a break-neck speed through plot points, making it more of a filmed check-list than an artistic endeavour in avoiding fan backlash.
Gary Ross, who previously directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, attempts to adaptation the novel with rapid editing, blunt storytelling, and having the frame constantly move. While effective at moments, but on the whole, it makes it difficult to establish emotional connections between Katniss and the other characters. Coupled with some poor CGI, it also distracts us from the core themes the story tries to explore.
The Hunger Games is passable, with a strong central performance by Jennifer Lawrence, an inspired set-design, and entertaining allegory. However, as much as the mise-en-scene and scripting gives the film a forward momentum, it is to its disadvantage as the film is robbed of the emotional connection it needed by running down events like an ungainly steamroller.