Is it the new Twilight? Is it faithful to the book? How violent is it? What’s up with Woody Harrelson’s hair? No, yes, pretty violent and Lord only knows.
Now we’ve got the big questions out the way, a quick catch-up for those wondering if The Hunger Games is ITV’s follow-up to The Biggest Loser. No. It’s the feverishly anticipated adap of the first in Suzanne Collins’ teen-book trilogy, set in a post-apocalyptic US (now called Panem) where the problems of maintaining civil order, keeping the youth in line and what to watch on TV all have the same solution: The Hunger Games, a yearly gladiatorial contest where two dozen randomly selected 12-to-18-year-old ‘Tributes’ are forced to fight to the death until only one remains. And it’s on freeview!
Gary Ross’ film kicks in like a futuristic redux of Winter’s Bone, with Jennifer Lawrence again being the glue holding together a fatherless, near-penniless household. Already there’s portent in the air, even before a government hovercraft thunders overhead.
And there’s a gut-wrench right around the corner, when 16-year-old Katniss’ (Lawrence) baby sis Prim (Willow Shield) is plucked from the hat for the 74th Games. A horrified Katniss volunteers to take her place, and it’s off to the Capitol, flanked by her fellow Tribute, baker boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)…
It’s a bold, bracing opener, Ross setting out his stall with a sobriety and austerity that may curveball viewers expecting event-movie gloss (or anyone who saw the dipped-in-honey Seabiscuit). The music’s minimal, the lensing indie-styled (fly-on-the-wall, intimate, herky-jerky), the colours cold.
Brighter hues await in the Capitol – decadent seat of the government’s power, where the fashion police hold no sway – but Ross, like his heroine, isn’t seduced by the glitz. Claims that the story’s told entirely from Katniss’ POV prove exaggerated; although, since one of the cutaways involves some fearsome riot action, we’ll let it slide.
Still, the camera does mostly cling to Katniss, requiring a Herculean amount of heavy lifting from Lawrence. She bears the load. Stoical or heart-on-sleeve, afraid or defiant, the starlet hits the mark. Factor in archery skills to make Robin Hood soil his Lincoln greens and you have Katniss as Collins intended.
Fidelity to character is one thing; but what about the aggro? Ross has his work cut out honouring the novel’s savagery without alienating the box office. The BBFC slashed seven seconds of spilt blood from the UK version.
There’s still plenty of what the censor calls ‘injury detail’ plus enough clever editing to make you feel the pain. Prime example? The grand, grisly start to the Games themselves, where it’s everyone vs everyone and bodies drop like dominoes. Ross mutes the sound effects and chops the carnage into almost subliminal flashes, avoiding explicitness without losing the horror.
Other problem areas for a film adap – from the faux-flames of Katniss’ Capitol dress to the beastly Muttations – are navigated with aplomb.
Lawrence’s shining star is orbited by other casting successes. Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci amuse as media grotesques Effie Trinket and Caesar Flickerman, also tying for Best Worst Wig/Make-Up.
Wes Bentley is smoothly ruthless as gamemaker Seneca Crane, quietly conspiring with Donald Sutherland’s slyly sadistic President Snow. The glory-hungry Career Tributes – ie the cool kids – are a suitably hateful mob, headed by Alexander Ludwig’s sneering Cato.
Lenny Kravitz (Katniss’ sympathetic stylist) probably shouldn’t start clearing space on his awards shelf, but you can’t have everything.
What falters most in the journey from page to screen is Collins’ blistering pace. It’s a long movie, and Ross is in no rush. Act 2 grinds us through basic training, Katniss and Peeta wrestling with their weaknesses and finding new strengths.
There’s also a lot of thousand-yard staring, plus the shabbily charismatic Haymitch Abernathy, played by a shabbily charismatic Woody Harrelson. Which sounds like a good thing, except his Games victor-turned-mentor is here less intriguing enigma than Basil Exposition.
Things accelerate when we enter the deadly arena, Ross confidently juggling action with emotion. There’s shock, suspense and self-sacrifice. There’s also roaring fireballs, mutant wasps and death by javelin. The most moving scene in the book becomes the moving scene in the film.
Meanwhile, the Katniss/Peeta relationship develops and deepens, firming up the love triangle (with Liam Hemsworth as Gale, our heroine’s best friend back home) that’s captivated readers as much as the violence and social commentary (on class conflict, media manipulation, government control, how we’ll be wearing our hair after the bomb drops).
If the chemistry between Lawrence and the brooding Hutcherson isn’t quite sizzling yet, then there are three more films for it to catch fire.
What’s remarkable is the lack of cheese. Tacky effects, corny dialogue and creaky performances are all shown the door. We repeat: not the new Twilight.
If not wholly true to Collins’ words (missing in action: the mayor’s daughter, the Avox girl), it gets the spirit bang on; like its source, this is both credible science fiction and a teen tale that doesn’t patronise or pander to its audience.
What’s more, the grit, gravity and empathy on display fuse into something fresh. There’ve been many, many survival-as-sport movies – The Most Dangerous Game, Punishment Park, Battle Royale, Series 7: The Contender - but The Hunger Games finds new ways to play.
A faithful adap, a grown-up teen movie and flaming good entertainment. The big test for the franchise lies ahead with the uneven second and third books. But on this showing, the odds are in its favour.