The Hunger Games: Battle Royale with cheese

Full disclosure: unlike an increasingly large chunk of the population, I have not read Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of books. Before entering the cinema I knew very little about The Hunger Games, beyond its incredible hype (enough to make any Disney executive green with envy) and some disparaging comparisons to Battle Royale. I was worried the adaptation may follow Harry Potter’s lead, offering fans a whistle-stop tour of favourite scenes while leaving an impenetrable story for the rest, but these fears were largely unfounded. The Hunger Games stands up well as a film in its own right, owed in part to the creative risks allowed to, and taken by, the director during conversion.

In the future, North America is a very different place. Following a failed uprising by 13 poor districts against the wealthy and controlling Capitol, the victors now exert their vengeance through the yearly ritualistic abduction and forced gladiatorial combat of their young. In an event known as the Reaping, both a girl and a boy from each of 12 districts are selected by lottery (the thirteenth district’s absence is infuriatingly left unexplained) and are taken to the Capitol. They’re then trained for four days in survival and combat and dumped into a large wooded arena filled with television cameras to fight to the death in the titular “Hunger Games”. The film follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) through this process, one of the tributes from District 12 along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The story is well conveyed to those unfamiliar with the books; while viewers may not be aware of everything a reader would, I always reasonably understood what was occurring. Most importantly, I was in no doubt what events meant to the characters involved.

This was partly due to the film’s impressive style. Director Gary Ross clearly appreciates the differences in storytelling between cinema and literature and, by manipulating sound and camerawork, provides a master class in using a visual medium. At the Reaping, as those selected see their neighbours back away, the camera zooms from behind to sit on their shoulder, amplifying the isolation. When Katniss first appears on television the sound fractures, reflecting her nerves. The scene’s emotions are confidently expressed through cinema, reflecting an adaptation with real thought behind it. Only one aspect fails to satisfy. The filmmakers faced a dilemma with the action sequences; how do you critique the glorifying of violence without glorifying it yourself? Rapid camera movements help to emphasise the events, but obscure the action frustratingly. Combined with the lack of blood required for the 12A rating the action feels largely lightweight. During the training scenes bloodlessness is not an issue, and without that jarring effect it’s far easier to get sucked in. In fact, it’s quite disconcerting when you start questioning precisely what it is you’re enjoying.

And that’s where The Hunger Games shines. People often decry Hollywood as shallow, but that’s not the case here. The film bubbles with subtext. It explores themes such as the rich-poor divide, corruption of children and our growing reality TV obsession. It makes you reflect. As Battle Royale represents what Japan might have been, The Hunger Games explores what America might become.

The story is not flawlessly told. Peeta is an unfathomable character, his actions seem contradictory but go unexplained.  The concept of sponsored combatants is also wasted. Early conversations conjure images of branding and heavily tipping the balance between contestants, but eventually fizzle out. The biggest issue, though, is the pacing. With 24 initial characters and no meaningful way of keeping track it is tricky to grasp how far through the games are, and a failure to increase tension results in a very anticlimactic ending. While this would fit the survivalist ethos, cutaways to television crews destroy the illusion. The point is repeatedly made that this is only a show, the producers just want people to watch and they have the power to manipulate the arena. Without enough tension a move described as the “finale” feels arbitrary. It’s understandable that the television presentation must exist to inform the viewer, but the pacing has to account for this to make it feel natural.

It also seems unfair that the film is only drawing comparisons with Battle Royale. It is a veritable pastiche of other movies, and several points felt extremely familiar. The edges of the arena and omnipotent producer could have been cloned from The Truman Show. The television format and dialogue justifying it to provide hope sounded oddly reminiscent of the Jason Statham B-movie Death Race. The frenetic visuals would have felt at home following Jason Bourne, and even the distinctive clothing worn by residents of the Capitol could have been lifted straight from the set of Zoolander. Broken down into its constituent parts, there’s not a whole lot that feels unique about The Hunger Games.

But that isn’t a criticism of the film. It is the tradition of artists to steal and improve on many sources. Quentin Tarantino has built his career on this principle. It’s refreshing to have a blockbuster with both depth and a strong female lead (who, in an even rarer turn, isn’t defined purely by her gender). The Hunger Games is both a fun action flick and a meaningful critique on society. Given the recent drought of cinema releases, it’s easily recommended.