The Hunger Games – Review

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The Hunger Games, based on the trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, is the latest instalment in this years run of blockbuster movies, indeed the big Hollywood Marketron 5000 has been ramped up to full power with a complete carpet bombing of promotion in the run up to it’s release with hundreds of thousands of tween’s and young adults frothing at the mouth to unconditionally lavish it with a level of adoration that would make even Lady Gaga blush.

Set in the future dystopia of Panam, whose socio-political landscape has been completely remapped by apocalyptic-style war, the Capitol choose one boy and one girl from each of its 12 subservient districts (facsimile’s of labour camps) to have the dubious honour of fighting to the death in an annual ritual from which the movie takes its name. Pitted against each other in a game of survival watched by the entire populous, replete with a vast array of weaponry, only one can survive and be crowned the victor. If this all sounds a bit familiar that’s because it’s also the premise of Battle Royale and there’s been a lot of internet chatter regarding this, with some media outlets describing The Hunger Games as “Battle Royale for the Twilight generation”. I’d like to take a second to deconstruct and disprove that nonsense before moving on: firstly to compare this movie, which is very good, to Twilight, a set of books and movie’s so insipid and overblown that I’d rather remove my own skin with a blunt knife than turn to them for entertainment, is an irritating marketing gimmick whose sole goal is to capitalise on the aforementioned frothing teen’s who are currently lacking a focus for their obsessive, asinine, internet trolling whilst they wait for the release of the next teaser trailer for the teaser trailer of Breaking Dawn: Part 2. What gets marketeers so wet between the thighs is the fact that they don’t have to do anything with this type of demographic as they’re perfectly capable of whipping up a storm of rabid, and frankly alarming, frenzy of neurosis all on their own at the mere sight of a possible love story, in effect it’s lazy marketing to appeal to this audience – and of course it works.

But, I digress, whilst The Hunger Games does indeed share a remarkable resemblance to the seminal Japanese classic Battle Royale Suzanne Collins, if she’s to be believed, had apparently never heard of either the book or movie before turning in the manuscript for The Hunger Games (it should be noted she had previously heavily borrowed from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so there’s precedent to simply take her as a plagiaristic liar). However, for as many similarities as there are between the two works there exists almost an equal amount of differences – at least on the fundamental narrative level. Battle Royale is a short, well contained, brutal story and if anything The Hunger Games represents an expansion on a similar theme rather than a rip off. As a trilogy of books there is a lot more going on here and the ideas are actually more developed, it’s more focused on the future dystopian world that predicates the barbaric return to colosseum style games as well as being focussed specifically on the character development of the two district 12 tributes. This is not to say that The Hunger Games is better than Battle Royale by any means, merely that the comparison is unnecessary as both films stand up as independently great without pedantic squabbles over originality – two sets of physicist’s independently discovered equations that would become integral to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, why then can’t these two movies be simultaneously great?

Love them or hate them (and I suspect there’ll be equal camps) the two main stars are Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss Everdeen, and Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta Mellark, and they do a remarkable job of bringing the story to life. Two teenagers from the bottom of the rung, the poor coal mining district 12, catapulted into the flashy, decadent world of the Capitol to perform for the perverse pleasure of the cultural elite in a brutal killing game. The characters come across as quite likeable as they struggle to work out what to do, how to act, and ultimately what sort of game they will play in order to try and stay alive. Jennifer Lawrence in particular shines with a strong performance that builds on her success in X-Men: First Class. The closest the Twilight metaphor comes to being a reality is the love story forced on the two (or at least on Katniss, for it seems Peeta has conveniently felt this way for some time) in order to manipulate the pretentious, effete audience for sponsorship. But even as it develops this relationship is far removed from the kind of sickly pseudo-emotion on display in Twilight as Katniss is a strong, conflicted character who is handy with a bow and arrow rather than the weeping open wound that is Bella. Both Katniss and Peeta are down to earth, tangible characters and even though this is science fiction there’s no ludicrous supernatural element. Here love is used as a marketing tool, rather than the kitschy, all consuming, monotonous tedium of Twilight, and whether it is ultimately real is I suspect going to be a topic for the sequels.

Stylistically The Hunger Games is very well thought out, it’s design is eclectic but constant, it has a futurism without being too flashy – although it has a laughably gaudy sense of fashion for the upper classes, this serves to highlight their shallow painted nature. It’s very considered in it’s camera work and framing with scenes often highly detailed with subtle matching colour themes. The violence, and there’s quite a bit of it considering the 12a rating, is well done although it’s lacks the balls to go too far with it. What’s far more barbaric is the mindset of the people who watch, cheer, and revel in the sadism of forcing people to battle to the death. The true vulgarity comes out in the reality TV style coverage and the ghastly audience reaction, all of which is mirrored in the tawdry get up of the decadent elite.

Stanley Tucci is marvellous as Ceasar Flickerman the host of this brutal Big Brother reality show, he’s a mix between Davina McCall and The Joker, with electric blue hair and a smile that goes far beyond disturbing he provides commentary and interviews with fervent revelry in the death and destruction. I loved Elizabeth Bank’s Effie Trinket with her eccentric couture outfits she channelled a ghoulish Simon Cowell figure overseeing the tribute selections. Much like Charlie Brooker’s recent second episode of Black Mirror, there’s a real condemnation of the reality TV culture that we’ve engendered, the reduction of the value of human worth to a tradable marketing commodity, and a palpable (albeit exaggerated) social commentary as an analogous satire of existing western culture. The games are ultimately a form of control, a way for the feudal autocracy of Panam to control the hope of the masses in order to prevent a future uprising and a repeat of the all out war that decimated the world.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s one of the only real flaws that I can come up with (except the frankly awful chariot visual effects sequence, and the needless inclusion of CGI hounds) and yet even that isn’t bad. People who’ve seen the movie or are unconcerned can highlight the text hidden below, those wanting to avoid spoilers can skip over it:

With this being a trilogy of books it’s not surprising that the two main characters survive, and lets face it this is Hollywood, but I can’t help feeling that the movie would have been more satisfying if one of the two had killed the other at the end, it would have been more brutal and powerful. There were hints that Peeta had been playing her all along and I would have found that a more real and harsh ending, similarly if Katniss had been forced to kill Peeta it would have led to some serious emotional tension. But maybe that’s just me, being cynical and seeking a more unharmonious ending. 

The Hunger Games surprised me, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. It’s brutal, well thought out, entertaining, and given the levels of shallow drivel that get thrown out by the movie machine it’s refreshing to watch something that is a little bit more than the average candy coated twaddle. Even if you don’t think it will be your thing I’d recommend seeing it. If you’re a Battle Royale fan go and see it but try not to sit there picking apart how it’s not as good – it is a different movie, and it’s a good one to boot. Get used to hearing about it as this is the latest book-to-film franchise that will be with us for some years yet.

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