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Time was, a young adult book typically meant solving a big case with the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew (and yes, these series are still going), but nowadays, older teens have a lot more to deal with and as such, most trendy books are less about mysterious old clocks and pesky robberies and more about the end of civilization and saving humanity. That’s a big leap.
That said, the young adult book to film adaptation of these dystopian stories has seen a number of films flood the market of late, most climbing upon the wide shoulders of this, The Hunger Games, a groundbreaking book and film series that ushered in the latest crop and still remains the benchmark for all others. You want kickass female protaganists, sure Nancy Drew does her bit, but she ain’t got nothing on Katniss Everdeen.
The first of four lengthy films, this one follows the origins of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), the young and skilled fighter of District 12 who, in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future, finds herself in a battle that begins in tradition, but soon defies the rules and expectations, and as the competition forges on, earns many fans across Districts but also a number of enemies in very important positions.
Directed by Gary Ross, The Hunger Games, based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins, is a bleak story to be sure and while themes are often tempered for the targeted audience, is nonetheless a surprisingly dark and often emotional story that has its flaws yet packs a solid punch, delivering what it promises with a rich background and easy-to-follow story. It’s great filmmaking and even if it gets a little long in the tooth and misses a few ripe opportunities for sharper social commentary, is plenty entertaining. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
If there is one thing about The Hunger Games that is defining, it is the setting and the atmosphere, something few in the genre truly get right as well as they should. It’s one thing to create a world but something else entirely to make it convincing and The Hunger Games sells its well. It’s the little things that make it work from the details in the wardrobe and hairstyles to the things happening in transitions and backgrounds.
There are some stirring early shots of District 12 that establish that this is a time of impoverishment, where the capital is awash in untold luxury and color while the outliers are seeped in poverty, and Ross and the filmmakers do a great job painting that picture. I love this quick shot of a woman in a window that reminds me of the classic Dorothea Lange image from 1936 that came to symbolize much about the American Depression, which is clearly a model for District 12.
It’s in this District where we meet Katniss, who is comforting her little sister Primrose (Willow Shields), now finally of age and about to have her first Hunger Games Day as a potential “tribute”, the name for the randomly selected contestants to take place in the inter-District fight to the death. The games are a holdover from the punishment the government created decades before after the District uprisings were quashed and has grown to be a spectacle sport for those in the city, the televised bloodsport a source for heroes and sponsors and plenty of side action.
On the day of selection for District 12, a lavish silver train carrying the colorful Capitol-born chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) arrives and with much pomp and circumstance, including a video recording of the history of the games now in its seventy-fourth cycle, draws from a large glass bowl, the name of the first tribute, a girl. Not surprising, it is Primrose, who moments earlier was in panic but upon hearing her name, composes her very young self and separates herself from the crowd, ready to make her sacrifice.
However, since the studio spent a lot more money on Lawrence to be in this movie, that doesn’t last long as Katniss leaps to her sister’s side and shouts that she volunteers herself in the little girl’s stead, something that has never happened in District 12 in the history of the games. Trinket accepts the noble gesture and then chooses the male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). The two enter the train and ride off toward the Capital and their prospective fates. As often said in movies, the real game begins.
This moment is truly impact for a number of reasons, but perhaps most effectively at first watch because of its compelling depth. There is no joy in this ceremony and the shattering loss that the Everdeen family (who is without a father) endures is hard to watch, especially in a sensational moment when Katniss demands of her mother (Paula Malcomson) not to cry, and that no matter her wants, she must now attend fully to Primrose. It’s a crushing scene.
That’s only made the more impactful by the movie’s handling of the drawings themselves, with the clever antipodal look and feel of Tricket and the families forced to line up in wait of whose names she will call. They are dressed in shades of grey and tonal blues that make them appear like a single unit from afar, a subtle nod to the clan’s unity, further compounded by their District’s salute, done in unison, a three-fingered hand gesture that looks more like an insult than a show of respect, something Trinket deflects as best she can. The ceremony is a somber and silent affair even as Trinket presses to make it otherwise, acting like she’s emceeing a rock show where the crowd have come for a funeral. This, in the wrong hands, could have been a serious mistake, but Ross balances this nicely, and with James Newton Howard‘s lush and dramatic score overlaying the action, it keeps it a powerfully-emotional moment.
This moment is actually born from another book, or at least parallels can be made, that of Shirley Jackson‘s classic short story The Lottery, where a ‘winner’ is chosen by lottery only to meet with a shocking end. There is a lot here that reflects that deeply satrical and socially scatching commentary about scapegoats, a theme the entire Hunger Games is premised on. And it’s not the first time it’s been done on film either, with one of the better moments produced in the 1981 epic fantasy film Dragonslayer, where the town, in a scene that is strikingly similar, draws the name of a virgin girl to be sacrificed to the dragon in the mountains.
Holding this all together in the Hunger Games is Lawrence, who uses these early moments to display much about the character of Katniss that will come to define her throughout the film, and in many ways is reflective and or an extension of her work as Ree in the tragic and even more dark, Winter’s Bone, a performance that still stands as her best. Hard-edged and a clever survivor, she is a loner, a fighter, and a cynic, all things that seem counter to her earning sponsors and coming out alive in the games but in time prove essential in becoming the warrior she does.
The Hunger Games is a terrific bit of fantasy and for young adults especially is a wonderful gateway into more selected works on the theme, such as Solyent Green, 1984, and the film’s more obvious influence, Koushun Takami‘s very graphic and socially disturbing Battle Royale, something the book came under fire for being too similar to, though both steer far enough away in their world views as to stand on their own. With epic heroes and lots of great action, there is an earned darkness about the film that helps to elevate it from others in the genre (some who tried to copy its success). And an early scene when a young woman takes her place to save her sister is one reason why. It’s a great cinematic moment.