I enjoyed the Harry Potter films. I dug the hell out of Lemony Snicket. I didn’t respond well to Twilight, but at least I gave it a shot, and I can understand the appeal. So I can say with an absolute clean conscious that out of all these book-to-film franchises, Hunger Games is the best as an actual piece of cinema. Those first three properties felt like exactly that: properties. They were popular pieces of entertainment and the money men got smart film makers to craft an extension of the product. Some of the films turned out well, others not so much. The Hunger Games is completely different: this is an actual movie, not just the visual equivalent of a book on tape.
When it comes to The Hunger Games, hiring Gary Ross to write and direct this film was the smartest decision LionsGate could have possibly made. The man isn’t an auteur, but he has one thing going for him that so many other directors don’t: he doesn’t fuck around. He takes his time and he focuses on getting everything as perfect as possible. The result is a filmography with only a handful of scripts and directorial credits to his name, but what a list: Big. Dave. Pleasantville. Seabiscuit. Most producers would kill to have just one of those films on their resume.
By now we all know The Hunger Games‘ conceit: Young Katniss Everdeen is forced to fight for her life in a vindictive game created by the corrupt Capitol. The politicians and money-makers that dwell in the Capitol lord over the other Districts with an iron fist, and the Games are designed to annually remind everyone who holds all the cards. It’s a very execution-dependent concept, and Ross executes it with style.
Ross gives each location a distinct shooting style that helps highlight the disparity between District 12, the Capitol, and the Arena. District 12 looks like a follow up to Harlan County USA with the sunken faces and harsh coal-mining lifestyle. The Capitol is the exact opposite: all high fashion and impractical tech that makes it seem like not a single city-dweller has ever performed a day’s work in their lives. The Arena mixes the two environments well: behind every tree and under every stone there’s either a fellow combatant or a camera to capture the bloodshed. Both pose an equal threat to our hero.
Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone and a star making turn in X-Men: First Class, is perfect as Katniss. She’s supported well by Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right, Bridge to Terabithia) as fellow contestant Peeta and Liam Helmsworth (Last Song) as her best friend back home. Fangirls may spend time debating who Katniss deserves to end up with but thankfully Ross and company don’t overplay the love triangle. Katniss has other things on her mind right now, like avoiding arrows, knives, and blunt blows to the head.
That brings me to my first complaint about the film, and I’ll admit it’s an odd one to have: there is not enough child-killing in this movie. The shaky cam and quick edits are beautiful when it comes to depicting riots and training montages, but when it comes to action sequences and the butchering of the underaged, it left me wanting more. Most times Ross cuts away from the killing blows, showing only bloody weapons and dead bodies. It’s effective, but not as effective as it could be. This is a flick that seriously chafes under its PG-13 rating, and the intensity of the Games is severely undercut because of it.
However, the themes of inspiration and revolution ring through loud and clear. I briefly mentioned a riot sequence in the prior paragraph, and here’s where I’ll tell you that that riot is one of the strongest pieces of film making I’ve seen this year. The action and the cuts and the music blend together perfectly and encapsulate all the themes Hunger Games wants to explore without underlining the point or shoving it in our faces. By the scene’s end I got chills, and the few lows Hunger Games has are made up for by the highs that riot sequence and a few others reach.
Hunger Games isn’t a perfect film but it is a very good film. It’s a smart sci-fi movie that adapts a decent book into something greater. Gary Ross has already signed on to direct the sequel, and I can’t wait to take another trip into this world with his hand at the helm. Judging by the film’s box office take I imagine many of you have already seen the film. But if you’ve been holding out, I strongly recommend you give this a shot.
The Hunger Games is in theaters right now.
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