25 March 2012

Not So Funny Games

Plenty of contestants, many of whom will "roar [their] way to the top." Shouting. Back-stabbing. A huge prize is at stake but there can only be one winner. No, I'm not talking about the new series of The Apprentice, but Gary Ross's new film adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins's hugely popular Hunger Games trilogy. The Hunger Games is, in part, a biting satire on our reality-TV-obsessed society (not dissimilar to Fifteen Million Merits, the second part of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror mini-series), but with a huge dollop of bleak, dystopian futurism--oh, and a healthy serving of courageous young female protagonist. Yes, with hindsight, it's easy to see the appeal of The Hunger Games.

In the not-too-distant future, Panem (formerly known as the US of A) consists of 12 districts, each known for its own special expertise, ruled over by the Capitol. As a punishment for an attempted rebellion, each year every district must offer up two "tributes" (young people, a boy and a girl aged between 12 and 18) to take part in the Hunger Games, a Battle Royale-style contest in which the contestants are placed in an arena filled with dangers and are then forced to fight one another to the death, until one victor remains. The people of the Capitol, with their mad-coloured hair and skin and crazy fashion sense (Princess Beatrice-inspired hats, and so on) watch the the footage, place bets on their favourite contestants and can even "sponsor" them, sending life-saving food or medicine into the arena.

The contestants are chosen by random ballot but young people can also opt for a tessera, which means an extra entry in the ballot in exchange for more food for their family. The movie opens on the eve of the 74th Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who live in District 12, in which the main industry is coal mining. The district is one of the poorest but Katniss and Gale are great hunters and manage to (illegally) hunt enough food to feed their families after the death of their fathers. They think about running away but Katniss worries about what would happen to her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields). It is the first year that Prim will be entered in the ballot but Katniss has worked hard to ensure her sister has never had to take a tessera and she assures Prim that they will be fine. But Primrose's name is, of course, drawn out, and Katniss volunteers to take her place--the first ever volunteer from District 12. The male tribute is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son.

Katniss barely has time to say goodbye to Gale, her mother (who has been suffering from severe PTSD after the death of her husband and who isn't any help in keeping the family together) and Prim (who hands her a "lucky" mockingjay pin) before she is whisked onto a train with Peeta, their chaperone Effie Trinket (a nearly unrecognisable Elizabeth Banks) and their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the only living victor from District 12. For a girl who grew up without hot water or electricity, the super-fancy high-speed train is fascinating for Katniss, who is starting to fully understand the implications of her decision. Effie is a representative of the Capitol and has ulterior motives, Haymitch is usually drunk and how can she trust her fellow tribute Peeta when they are rivals, even if he did give her bread once when she was starving? And as she learns about the "career" tributes in Districts 1 and 2, who train all of their lives for the "honour" of representing their district in the Hunger Games, she wonders how she can ever compete.

But with a bow in her arms, she is Artemis, and after growing annoyed when the game makers, led by Wes Bentley's Seneca Crane, ignore her during her "audition" in favour of a hog roast, she soon gains their attention by shooting an arrow straight into the apple in the pig's mouth and is promptly given a Spinal Tap-style rating of 11 out of 10. She also has an awesome stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who doesn't just "make her pretty," but dresses her in a series of stunning outfits that no one can forget. After the games start, though, she is pretty much on her own and with 23 enemies, many of whom are bigger, stronger and faster, Katniss will need to rely on her wits as well as her mad bow skillz if she is going to make it out alive.

Without wishing too sound too much of a fangirl, The Hunger Games is one of the best films I've seen this year. In part, this is down to the casting. Jennifer Lawrence, of Winter's Bone fame (where she also played a real survivor--the determined teenager Ree, who has to protect her younger siblings in the face of an absent, drug-dealing father and a depressed mother), puts in a really strong performance as Katniss and does justice to the young heroine described in the books. Even when she isn't being likable, we sympathise and we understand her fear and her determination. With so many characters and so much plot to get through, some of the other actors, such as Kravitz, seem rather unused, although I did think Harrelson made the perfect Haymitch. Hemsworth and Hutchershon stood out less and Alexander Ludwig's Cato, the arrogant, blonde jock from District 2, was pretty stereotypical. Some of the female contestants were more interesting, like Clove (Isabelle Furhman), the District 2 mean girl.

At 2h20, The Hunger Games is long but it is action-packed and at no point was I bored; on the contrary, for the first time since I saw The Social Network, I would have liked the film to go on, although there will be sequels, presumably, for that. The film was a very faithful adaptation of the book, unsurprising, perhaps, as Collins co-wrote the screenplay and given what the fans might do if the movie veered too far away from the source material. The Hunger Games is no sappy teen love story--it is scary, both in the ideas it presents and in the events in the arena, and compelling and well worth a watch.

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