With Harry Potter long gone and with the adventures of Edward and Bella drawing to a close, studios are scrambling for a teen series to plug the hole in their schedules. Step forward The Hunger Games, also adapted from a successful series of novels and which coincidentally also features a female lead and a burgeoning love triangle.
It’s set in a dystopian future United States where inhabitants of the 12 districts must select two contenders a year between the ages of 12 and 18 to take part in a brutal competition, from which there can only be one survivor. But though the notion is intriguing, for all its implied savagery and its satire of our obsession with fame and celebrity, it feels curiously flat because it doesn’t follow through on its premises.
Our protagonist is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a spirited self-reliant woman and skilled archer who ends up volunteering to take the place of her younger sister who has been selected for the games. She’s thrown together with fellow district mate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has little distinction apart from his ability to hide. Lawrence is perfect – channelling the taciturn determination which made her shine in Winter’s Bone. Katniss is also an excellent female role model – far better than the moping, wet Bella Swan of Twilight – strong, capable and with no compulsion to draw attention to her gender.
The build up to the games and the glimpses of Capitol are the most intriguing – depression-era districts, a futuristic domed city made of glass, success driven by sponsorship and money. It’s a world similar to the one envisaged by Stephen King when he wrote The Running Man, one where televised blood sport has become entertainment and outlandishly dressed, garishly coiffured, beaming game show hosts hold sway over an eager populace.
For all its expected brutality, the games themselves feel oddly subdued. Director Gary Ross has elected to film most of it via hand-held camera which has the benefit of making us feel like we’re right in there with Katniss, but it’s detrimental to the development of any of the other characters. Consequently, there’s little impact when fellow competitors meet their untimely demises.
This being a 12A, the prerequisite violence is often left unseen but it also fails to drive home the inhumanity of the competition – the numerous “killed by the scenery” cop-out kills and deaths ring hollow in a film which promises so much. That’s not to say it’s gore which is missing – merely a tighter focus on the real impact and meaning of death. This is after all a society which accepts the concept of children killing children; if it’s going to make a poignant comment on society, adult themes should be successfully engaged, but it never feels like it’s earned the emotional resonance that it often strives for.
To compare it to the infinitely more brutal Battle Royale is perhaps a little unfair but the desperation and unflinching brutality of BR really underscores the barbaric practices and decline of society. The Hunger Games certainly touches on that but alliances are formed too readily and characters don’t act with the ruthlessness or intelligence that the penalty of death would engender.
It’s a long movie –over 140 minutes – and that’s probably as a result of the desire to want to cram as much of the book in as possible. Despite its length, it doesn’t feel unwieldy but there’s still a nagging feeling that many of the plot holes could be filled in with some knowledge of the source material which is frustrating for those for whom the film will be their first experience.