The Hunger Games (2012) – Directed by Gary Ross – Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Willow Shields, Amandla Stenberg, and Paula Malcomson.
THE HUNGER GAMES is an extraordinary film, thanks primarily to Gary Ross’ superb direction and Jennifer Lawrence’s totally engrossing performance as Katniss Everdeen. Gorgeously shot, expertly paced, with a script that hits all the right notes, HUNGER GAMES never forgets that at its center sits the horrible truth of children killing children for the entertainment of the elite.
And, by extension, us.
Let me state a few things plainly right off the top. If you hate this movie because Jennifer Lawrence is too “fat” to play Katniss, f*ck off. If you hate this movie because you didn’t realize Rue was black, f*ck off. If you hate this movie because, quote, you liked it better when it was called Battle Royale/Lord of the Flies, unquote, f*ck off. None of you will find anything of interest here, so your life will be better if you spend the next five minutes doing anything but reading this review.
Now, if you genuinely dislike, or even hate this movie because you think the script is dumb, the direction overbearing, the acting wooden, or anything else, please stick around. I’m not suggesting I’m going to change your mind, because I’m really not interested in changing your mind. I’m just here to give you mine and if you don’t agree, well, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s plenty of people out there who dislike HUNGER GAMES for completely valid reasons and I respect all of those people and all of those opinions.
I just don’t have time for anyone who wants to caustically dismiss a movie because it’s not something else, or because of one small item. I mean, great, Battle Royale had kids killing kids, too, but do you know what it didn’t have?
Just about everything else THE HUNGER GAMES does. It’s too easy to play the, “I liked this story better when it was called ________” card. Are there ripoffs? Sure. THE HUNGER GAMES isn’t one of them.
In the post-apocalyptic, rebuilt world of Panem, the United States (or maybe it’s all of North America) has been divided into twelve separate districts. Each year, a male and female kid (between the ages of 12 and 18) from each district is chosen at lottery to travel to the Capitol and kill each other in the Hunger Games. There’s only one winner. Everyone else dies. The lottery is called the Reaping, and all of the of-age kids gather in a town square to see the name pulled at random from a bowl. On this year, for the 74th Hunger Games, the female tribute from District 12 is Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), a mousy 12-year old in the lottery for the first time.
Unable to bear the thought of her sister in the Games, Katniss Everdeen rushes forward to volunteer to take her sister’s place. Gary Ross does a phenomenal job quickly building up this moment. Prior to Katniss’ volunteering, we see how tough life is in District 12. Food is not guaranteed, and Katniss hunts with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to put dinner on their table. Katniss and Prim’s father has died in a coal mining accident and their mother has bouts of uselessness as she’s overcome with her husband’s absence.
Ross shows us the poverty of District 12 and the beauty of the surrounding natural landscape. (The districts are cordoned off and going outside the district gates is forbidden.) The district has a washed out, muted look, full of greys and browns and dull blues. Clothes are old. Houses are ramshackle cabins. The whole vibe is like a late-19th/early-20th century community built on coal mining. In the middle of it sits Katniss, a proud teenage girl who’s had to assume the mantle of leadership in her family after her father’s death. She talks to Prim, keeping her as calm as possible, and helps her dress in her Sunday best for the Reaping.
When Prim’s name is pulled out of the lottery bowl by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Ross masterfully depicts Prim’s horror and the gravity of this decision by having the girls around her slowly back away, instantly isolating her from the community. Katniss steps forward to volunteer and we begin to see the disconnect in Panem between the residents of a lower-class place like District 12 against the upper-class elitists that actually enjoy the Games. To Katniss, Prim, male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and the rest of this community, the Reaping is the annual Worst Day of the Year because everyone in D12 knows that they’re sending off two of their children to die.
All because of a failed rebellion 74 years and the government’s insistence on never letting them forget it.
From the Capitol side of the equation, however, the Reaping is the start of the annual Best Time of the Year. Effie is all smiles and bubbles greeting Katniss to the stage, while the young girl is completely shocked and overwhelmed by what’s just transpired. This disconnect between how the poorer districts and the Capitol treat the Games is seen repeatedly in the film. It’s an artful balance on Ross’ part between the kids who largely don’t want to be here killing each other and the Capitol’s elite who love watching them kill each other.
After Katniss says a quick goodbye to her sister, mother, and then Gale (who promises to look after Prim), she and Peeta are hurried onto the train that will take them cross country to the Capitol. You can feel how uncomfortable Katniss and Peeta are among all of the opulence on the train. We see Katniss, the girl who has to hunt for squirrels to feed her family, suddenly surrounded by all manner of ornate and beautiful food. On the train, the tributes are introduced to their coach, the last Hunger Games winner from District 12, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), who’s a bit of an uninterested lush.
Once they get to the Capitol there’s lots of public interviews and training and trying to find themselves amid all the glamour of the Games and the stark reality of what’s coming. It’s this middle section that’s the weakest part of the film for me, but it’s also sort of perfect because it reminds us of the absurdity of this situation and the fact that Katniss and Peeta are still kids. It’s hard enough knowing who you are when you’re 16, let alone when you suddenly find yourself a celebrity in a strange land about to put your life on the line. The film perfectly places Katniss and Peeta (though it should be noted the film is really Katniss’ film, and Peeta occupies the role of lead secondary character) in between the “Careers,” the tributes from the richer districts who spend their life training to volunteer for the Games, and the younger kids who know they have no chance. Katniss and Peeta are somewhere in between, good enough to not be easy meat but not good enough to be immediate favorites.
Things start to change when Katniss catches the eye of the crowd. The folks of the Capitol treat this as a spectacle, with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and occasionally Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones) emceeing the festivities. Katniss is uncomfortable being transformed into “the girl on fire” as her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) creates elaborate costumes for her that win the crowd’s attention. Katniss does her part, too, like when the Games’ oddsmakers don’t pay attention to her so she shoots an arrow through an apple in a pig’s mouth on a table in the judges’ area.
All of this spectacle and selling oneself is important to gaining sponsors among the elite that can help a tribute survive the Games. It’s an important part of the novel and an important aspect of the absurdity of the Games, but it also bogs the film down just a bit. What works in this section is the confusion between Katniss and Peeta. During his solo interview with Caesar, Peeta reveals that he’s always had a crush on Katniss, which casts the two of them as “the starcrossed lovers” for the audience. Katniss is not happy with this turn because she’s unsure if Peeta is being truthful or if it’s just a ploy to build a bankable narrative for the crowd.
When we get to Act 3 and the actual Games, Ross proves himself capable of filming a decent action sequence. The violence is largely minimized – the film sacrificing raw brutality for emotional response. It’s a strategy that works for me, though there is something to be said about forcing the audience to witness the deaths. Getting to see the kills in quick glimpses works for me, though, because the violence of the Hunger Games is there to be enjoyed by the interior audience of the Capitol and reviled by the interior audience of the various districts around Panem. For us out here in the exterior, I don’t think we need the violence reinforced; what we need to see is how the deaths effect Katniss, and we get that in abundance.
The most emotional part of the film comes when Katniss befriends Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the youngest female tribute. Katniss sees a bit of her sister in Rue, but Rue is much more capable of taking care of herself. When the Careers trap Katniss in a tree overnight, it’s Rue who shows Katniss how to save herself by dropping a nest of tracker jackers into the middle of the sleeping Careers. Katniss gets stung, too, and Rue helps her heal and watches over her. Katniss concocts a plan to strike back at the Careers, but the plan goes awry and Rue ends up getting killed by Career tribute Marvel (Jack Quaid), who then gets killed by Katniss.
Rue’s death devastates Katniss, and she honors the death of the young girl with a song and flowers, then looks into the camera and flashes a sign that causes a riot in Rue’s home district. There’s no moment in the film that matches the intensity of THE HUNGER GAMES like this one, and as much as I’d been enjoying the film and as much as I’d been carried along with the story, it was this moment of a devastated, defiant Katniss looking into that camera and connecting with the citizens of District 11 that I knew I was watching a truly special film.
Growing wise in the ways of audience manipulation, Katniss cares for an injured Peeta, taking advantage of a rule change that allows for two winners of the Games as long as they’re from the same district. She channels her own growing confusion over her feelings for Peeta into a performance for the people at home. Instead of coming off as a romance, Katniss’ manipulation of Peeta serves as a bookend for Peeta introducing the whole starcrossed-lovers story line. Her kiss for the camera is the film’s most downbeat moment as it reveals a new side of Katniss, a maturing girl who is learning how to treat the very deadly Games as a game in order to curry favor with potential sponsors. It’s a true loss-of-innocence moment for Katniss as the transformative power of the Games is revealed. Katniss and Peeta win the Games, but then the rules change again, reverting to the “one victor only” dictum. Refusing to fight, they threaten to go all Romeo and Juliet double suicide before the Gamesmaster Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) steps in to allow them both to survive.
From start to finish, THE HUNGER GAMES is a beautifully shot and acted film. Gary Ross’ direction is simply fantastic, knowing when to let the camera linger and when to use a shaky cam to enforce the chaos of the situation. I love the technique of going quiet in loud moments, and Ross uses it a couple times here to great effect. I generally despise weird costumes and weird haircuts in my sci-fi, but HUNGER GAMES makes it work because it highlights the wide disconnect between life in the Capitol and life in District 12. There are an entire host of good performances by veteran actors here, led by a quietly menacing Donald Sutherland as President Coriolanus Snow. I have so much respect for actors like Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, and even Lenny Kravitz for hitting the perfect notes in smaller roles. Ross gets the exact performance he needs out of all his actors, but these three are vital to showing how Katniss manages to connect with people.
Jennifer Lawrence is magnificent as Katniss, instantly drawing me into the movie and making me believe fully in this character. Katniss is tough, resilient, and continually overwhelmed by the Capitol, by Peeta’s love for her, for the Games, but she’s never defeated. She manages to take her own personal pain and give it to the world, and even though she turns manipulative later in the Games, you can also see that she’s genuinely confused by her growing attraction towards Peeta and bothered by playing to the audience at home.
I love nearly everything about THE HUNGER GAMES. Gary Ross and Jennifer Lawrence have combined their talents to produce a very special movie. THE HUNGER GAMES is incredibly moving, heartbreaking, and uplifting. It’s also an incredibly serious film, deeply disturbing in its content, but also insightful about contemporary culture. Truthfully, THE HUNGER GAMES isn’t a great time at the theater in the conventional blockbuster sense; this isn’t a big, fun, action romp of a popcorn flick, and if you go in expecting that I think there’s a very good chance you’ll leave disappointed. I saw this film and The Cabin in the Woods on back-to-back days and while both movies share a similar premise (adults manipulating the death of teenagers), Drew Goddard’s film is the better popcorn film.
Make no mistake, however, that THE HUNGER GAMES is the better movie and a brilliant film.