Review: The Hunger Games (2012)


Lord of the Flies famously declared that if civilization were stripped away, even “innocent” children would tear each other apart. The Hunger Games suggests that civilization—more specifically our consumer-capitalist society—demands that children tear each other apart. In the ruins of North America, the Capital of the nation of Panem enjoys luxury and ease by exploiting the twelve districts. After a rebellion many years ago, the Capital now keeps the districts in line by “reaping” two children—one girl and one boy—from each district every year, and making all twenty four fight to the death in the annual televised battle, the Hunger Games. The radical implication is that although we (the average middle-to-upper-class North American audience) likely identify with the protagonist Katniss and the oppressed districts, we are actually more like the Capital that exploits the outlying districts to sustain its comforts and indulgences. The problem is that this provocative suggestion barely escapes the lips of the film, and probably hardly registers in the minds of the teenage fan-girls (or the boys or parents, for that matter).

This barely addressed subtext is what really intrigues me. The rest is a fairly competent but terribly average dystopian adventure. The strange thing is that the director, Gary Ross, who also made the horse racing crowd-pleaser Seabiscuit (2003), showed more cinematic flare on that Depression-era racetrack than he does in the forested, futuristic battle arena. The action sequences are decent but never riveting, and while Ross’s shaky camerawork may obscure enough of the gore to maintain a PG-13 rating, it detracts from the earlier, quieter scenes of dramatic exposition.

The movie is extremely faithful to the book and should please the hoards of fans in this respect. The author of the novel, Suzanne Collins, helped write the screenplay, and her streamlined, declarative prose is perfectly suited for adaptation to the big screen.

Even so, there is a lot of half-realized potential. Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman, the host of the Hunger Games, is a fun satire of media personalities, with his ridiculous blue ponytail and huge white teeth, but some of the other citizens of the Capital look like cheap rejects from the Emerald City. Sadly, Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch never really comes together. The exaggerated, humorous satire of the Capital also conflicts with the deadly serious tone of the arena scenes. Are we supposed to be questioning these games, even if we’re rooting for Katniss to kill the other kids and win? In the book, Suzanne Collins spent time describing how Katniss must play to the TV cameras and pander to the audience. This interesting angle is not nearly as prominent in the film, which is odd considering the greater ability a film has than a novel to parody and satirize reality TV. There is greatness somewhere in The Hunger Games, in the unspoken observations, sitting beneath the surface. If only it had been fully realized.

Lastly, I just want to add that Katniss (played strongly by Jennifer Lawrence) is a refreshingly unproblematic heroine. She hunts and fights, but doesn’t have to be the typical movie tomboy. In this respect, I can understand why girls and young women alike adore the books.

6 out of 10

The Hunger Games (USA, 2012)

Directed by Gary Ross; screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray from the novel by Suzanne Collins; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, and Donald Sutherland.