Reviews

The Hunger Games

3

Gary Ross’ bloodsport blockbuster plays for keeps...

Team Peeta or team Gale?

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. For all that Gary Ross’ fanatically anticipated and feverishly greeted adaptation of The Hunger Games was marketed as a boy-girl-boy love triangle in the vein of Twilight, it bears about as much resemblance to that franchise as very mature cheese to very rudimentary chalk.

It’s an important distinction to make because THG’s heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) – bold, pragmatic, inelegant, fiercely self-sufficient, handy with a weapon – is everything that Twilight’s Bella is not.

In fairness, Katniss has substantially more on her plate than Bella – it’s tricky to find time to mope over your romantic destiny when you’re scrabbling to feed your family under the thumb of a despotic government.

With her father dead and her mother catatonically depressed, Katniss spends her days hunting game and bartering for the bare essentials, the threat of starvation looming large in the divided, dystopian world of Panem.

When her beloved little sister is selected for the eponymous Games – an annual event in which one boy and one girl from each of Panem’s 12 districts are randomly selected to compete in a televised fight to the death – Katniss volunteers in her place.

She also (and here the Bella comparison begins and ends) has a pair of suitors – one a strapping childhood friend, the other a slender, sensitive, brooding sort.

She shares only two scenes with the former, Gale, who’s played by an affable if unmemorable Liam Hemsworth.

The latter, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is a fellow contestant in the Games, which puts about as much of a dampener on things as you’d expect.

Ross has taken flack on the technical side, criticised by some for a lack of visual ambition and by others for his stylised shaky-cam fight sequences.

The former’s just plain wrong – Clint Eastwood’s long-time DoP Tom Stern knows exactly what he’s doing with the colour palette, from the  muted greys and blues of Katniss’ deprived homeland to the garish neons of the lavish Capitol.

The latter is trickier to contest; at times, it does become impossible to see who’s stabbing who and who’s getting eviscerated by deadly wasps; by no means a coincidence given the film’s tween-friendly 12A certificate.

The Blu-ray offers an alternative 15-rated cut (‘The Unseen Version’), a no-less juddery but slightly bloodier version that might satisfy fans who found the theatrical take overly diluted.

This is, after all, a story about children being forced to murder each other for sport, and you could argue glossing over the brutality is more morally bothersome than highlighting it, Battle Royale style.

But this is too faithful an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ book to ever risk feeling  blunted – the stakes are real, the losses are significant, and death genuinely matters.

There’s a pleasing amount of time devoted to the Games’ lengthy preamble, in which contestants are first primped up for the cameras and expected to turn on the charm for viewers, and later subjected to a series of training exercises before competition begins.

This is the kind of deliberately paced world-building portion that could easily have been given short shrift by a big-screen adaptation; just pick any Potter film you like as an example.

The moment in which Katniss – her steely stoicism suddenly becoming wide-eyed, distinctly youthful terror – and her fellow contestants are abruptly ejected into the arena is more brutal and jarring than any amount of bloodshed.

That’s not to say some nuances aren’t lost from the book – the loss of Katniss’ internal monologue makes for a few unavoidably clunky moments of exposition, while simultaneously doing away with the sense of her cumulative, isolated peril.

But the trade-off here is an expanded sense of the world beyond the arena, with the Games’ control room (uncannily reminiscent of the set-up in Joss Whedon’s The Cabin In The Woods) and Donald Sutherland’s President Snow both featuring prominently.

But let’s return to that pesky love triangle. Another key element retained from the book is the idea that Katniss, having realised that Peeta carries a torch for her, pretends to reciprocate in order to curry favour with viewers.

“Young love,” says Woody Harrelson’s enjoyably briny mentor Haymitch, “gives the viewers something to root for.”

It’s this cynical view of romance and its narrative function that makes the triangle essentially irrelevant – neither love interest is developed enough to be a plausible option for Katniss, whom we come to know so well, and nor are they really meant to be.

It feels unfair to saddle any film with the responsibility of setting a moral example, but given the young demographic shared by Twilight and THG, it’s a dead cert their heroines will be taken as role models.

Given the choice, then, between a girl who will do anything to stay alive and protect her family, and a girl who can’t wait to die for love, it’s not hard to decide which to root for.

Stephenie Meyer and the series’ directors have made it clear that there’s no such thing as Team Bella, but Team Katniss is alive and kicking.

Extras include a Making Of that’s feature-length but errs on the side of earnestness, while featurettes include Donald Sutherland rambling, sorry, reading out the epic letter he wrote to Ross that inspired additional Snow scenes.

Film Details