Following in the wake of the mega-successful Harry Potter and Twilight franchises this year’s teen fiction/blockbuster movie crossover hit looks to be The Hunger Games. Directed by Gary Ross and adapted from the books by Suzanne Collins, this first movie in what will presumably become a sequence is significantly grittier than the two antecedents mentioned above, and also a couple of degrees less fantastical (in that there don’t appear to be any supernatural or magical characters or devices involved, at least). It’s set in a future version of the United States, where after a bloody civil war a central metropolis has established dominance over twelve outlying regions, who every year are required to select a teenage girl and boy to be sent to the capital to take part in a fight-to-the-death version of extreme Duke of Edinburgh Awards camping, which is televised Big Brother style to the nation and from which there can be only one winner.
That this is hardly an original idea for a speculative fiction doesn’t necessarily make it a bad one. The notion of a select group of young people being rounded up and sent as a tribute has been used as far back as the Minotaur myth, and gladiatorial style ordeals in contained environments occur time and again in science fiction (the forest, river and pastures of the combat zone here reminded me immediately of Blake and Travis facing off in the hallowed Blake’s 7 episode Duel). And the serious, but not deadeningly portentous, tone established in the first hour or so of this film seemed pretty promising. The poverty of the remote District 12, from which lead character Katniss is drawn to take part in the games, is credibly depicted with resonances with the depression-era Southern states, and the contrast with the gaudiness of the effete figures controlling the media presentation of the event is properly effective (if for no other reason, this movie may be worth going to see just for the extraordinary, burlesque-goes-dada, hairpieces and costumes on display in the capital city). Ostentatious digital effects are kept to a minimum, and refreshingly made to serve the needs of the script rather than the other way round, and most importantly, in Katniss we’re given a credible character to identify with, someone from a disadvantaged background with native intelligence who’s not overly charismatic or unconvincingly gifted. Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who seems to have cornered the market in this type of thing, following her similar role in Winter’s Bone, where she also played a resourceful outsider looking after a spaced-out mother and a vulnerable younger sibling. She has to more or less carry The Hunger Games singlehanded at times, and does so with grace and efficiency.
After a long preparatory section showing the tributes being trained in the arts of killing and survival between being presented to the public on glitzy chat shows we eventually get to the game itself, and by now we feel that we’ve earned some action, preferably with some tough moral choices thrown in. Unfortunately, the film cops out on both counts. While there’s certainly a lot more in the way of brutal child massacring than in your average multiplex entertainment you don’t get to see, or more importantly feel, much of it at all, as practically every character involved has been set up explicitly as either a one-dimensional sadist or just cannon fodder, and the killings tend to happen either offscreen or in impressionistic slow-motion montages which obscure rather than reveal. I guess this is probably a compromise necessary to earn a 12A certificate, but it seems to jar with the earnest feel of the early parts of the film, as does the inexplicable removal of multiple corpses from the fields of combat in instances when they’re returned to by surviving participants. More disappointing, and a more serious failure of the film, is one’s increasing awareness that Katniss, while undoubtedly being put through the mill in terms of discomfort, anxiety and personal injury, is never going to be called upon to make the sort of unpalatable decision as to who who lives and who dies that a scenario like this ought to be forcing upon her. The good players help her, the bad players attack her and if she’s having to dispatch someone it’s always an act of self-defence. Towards the end of the film even the controllers of the game seem to be conniving to let her avoid hard decisions, and by the denouement this audience member at least had stopped caring. It also doesn’t help that the movie seems far too long – one’s good will seems to run out surprisingly soon once the game begins. It’s a shame because The Hunger Games is far from terrible, and there’s enough good stuff here to make it worth watching (did I mention Donald Sutherland, turning in a great performance as the amoral President?) It just could have been so much better.