I must admit that this franchise passed me by entirely. The height of its popularity came and went just after I was outside of its target demographic; and in truth, it seems like a franchise I could quite easily get into, but hadn’t had the time to do so, but now my options are limited, it’s a great chance to catch up on things like this.
I vaguely remember the hype around this series in the early-to-mid 2010s, and while it never achieved the height of pop-culture phenomenon afforded to its Young-Adult-orientated contemporaries, it has still generated a fairly sizeable fan-base, and enough momentum to warrant a new prequel book that was released earlier this year.
It’s based on the eponymous book series written by Suzanne Collins, which depicts a dystopian future where twenty-four ‘tributes’ are selected from twelve districts to compete in a fight to the death competition as punishment for a previous uprising, with each tribute picked at random, except for our hero Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who volunteers herself to save her younger sister.
Right from the off, I was comparing this film to similar YA-aimed tales that were popular around the same time, and I have to say, even amongst its contemporaries, it really stands out. The premise itself was enough to pique my interest, but it was in its execution where it made me want to learn more about this world and its society.
There’s a wonderful dichotomy between the utopia of ‘The Capitol’ where all the money and influence is based and the twelve districts from which the champions are picked. The Capitol awash with vibrant (and often sickly) colours and fashion, with its population living in the lap of luxury, sporting wildly over-the-top outfits, while the citizens of the later districts live ration-to-ration, in grim and grey environments, working their often labour-intensive jobs out of the view of The Capitol. It has a devilishly sharp satire running underneath it that will be blindingly obvious to a more mature audience but will likely fly over the heads of the younger crowds.
It’s a particularly extreme example of wealth inequality, but one that puts the setting into perspective quite nicely, and its the world and how it functions that I came away more interested in by the end of the film.
The actual meat of the film, the games themselves, can’t help but be predictable and anticlimactic, but it is a starting point of a bigger story, something that is both a positive and a negative thing; on one hand, it was a significant enough chunk of the over-arching narrative to not feel bare as an overall experience, and it is intriguing enough to make me want to watch the next instalments, it feels like there’s something brewing, we just don’t get there in this film, which can be frustrating at times, as it feels like its holding something back for later films, which is something I’ve criticised Marvel for in the past, so I’m nothing but consistent in my complaints.
Really though, we knew going in that this was the first in a series, so a comparison to the MCU’s approach of every film being an advert for the next isn’t exactly fair, but in my defence, it does feel like there is a certain something lacking, like it doesn’t quite grasp the overarching narrative yet, and as such can come across as unfocused and messy.
This is reflected in the cinematography too, which is extremely restless and jump-cut-happy at times. There are moments when the films builds a nice intense atmosphere, which is interrupted by a jumpily shot scene, and this isn’t even a problem exclusive to the action, even in the slower scenes, five different angles are used when two would have sufficed.
The cut-up nature of the story is just a reflection of it being an adaptation of a series of books, however, meaning that the closure we usually seek in films is lost; this is an easier feat to pull off in a book, but less so in a film, which has to tell a coherent narrative and be accessible to anyone at the same time, whereas a book assumes you are onboard with the series for you to read it. If you were to start the Harry Potter series from the Second Book, for instance, you’d only have yourself to blame, whereas the film adaptation is obligated to also be understandable to anyone jumping on at that point. It’s what makes novel adaptations (specifically a series adaptation) such a perilous undertaking.
I couldn’t comment on how good an adaptation of the book the film is, as I haven’t read it, but I can say that it did its job well enough as a film to make me interested enough in the series, it’s sold me to the point where I want to watch more, and maybe even pick up the books eventually, so that’s job done as far as they’re concerned.
I am here to review films on their own merit though; to me, it doesn’t matter if a film is a faithful adaptation or not, so long as it is an enjoyable product, then I’m happy, and for what it’s worth, The Hunger Games is enjoyable, I can’t help but feel like I’m not the target audience and so am not invested in the series as perhaps is necessary to get the full enjoyment of it, but as I say, its job is to introduce new audiences to the material too, so there’s a win right there.
I can’t say I was overly-enamoured with the characters involved either, I was warming to Katniss in the end (and Lawrence does a great job as the character) but it feels like she’s still growing into a big enough character to carry a franchise, other characters are either insignificant, merely being walking time-bombs for their inevitable demises – these are usually the ones with the least characterisation – or they’re stock retreads of the usual tropes.
There are a few exceptions, however. Woody Harrelson delights in chewing the scenery as Haymitch, a former winner of the games, sporting a ridiculously terrible hairpiece (between this film and Venom, I’m starting to think Hollywood’s wig-makers have a vendetta against Woody) and a drinking problem, and Stanley Tucci also has fun hamming it up as lively talk-show host Caesar Flickerman (for my UK readers, try and imagine Graham Norton with purple hair, and for my US audience, imagine Jimmy Fallon). These two are little shimmer of brighter characters amongst an otherwise so-so mix of cliches and tropes.
Still, though, the underlying point of this review is that the film held my attention and interested me enough to make me want to watch more, I’m not in a rush to see the next instalment, but I would like to see where the story goes next, I wasn’t actively wishing the film would end and all of its characters to spontaneously combust like I do when I watch Twilight, but comparing it to those low standards is doing it a disservice.
At the end of the day, I enjoyed The Hunger Games, despite my lack of engagement with most of its characters, the world of the film more than made up for it, I like its dynamics, how juxtaposing the lives of those at either end of the scale are, and that’s what will make me come back for more. It helps that it has a talented cast, and it is fairly dependably directed and shot, even if it can be a bit messy, and it can’t help but being an anticlimax, in the end, it’s an entertaining and engaging enough film to lead you into its universe, I tentatively await to see if its next instalment takes the franchise to higher places.