Did you read the book? That might be the most important question that determines if you enjoy the teen romance/adventure film ‘The Hunger Games’ or find it a bit baffling. It’s a constant challenge for films based on books, what to jettison, what to trim down, and which characters to simply erase from the story in the interest of time and story arc. In this case, director Gary Ross stuck quite close to the book, but at the price of character development, leaving us with a film that’s exciting, but confusing: why are all these people acting and reacting this way?
‘The Hunger Games’ takes place in a dark future where civilization has devolved into a central Capital district, the affluent seat of a strict, totalitarian government, and a dozen districts focused on producing specific goods for the Capital. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in District 12, along with her young sister Prim (Willow Shields) and ostensible boyfriend, the dashing rebel Gale (Liam Hemsworth). To ensure the continued repression of the districts, the Capital sponsors an annual fight to the death of children 12-18, picked randomly two from each district. The Hunger Games.
When Prim is chosen, Katniss volunteers in her place and is sent to the Capital to prepare for the games and her likely death along with fellow District 12 teenager Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The contrast between the posh Capital and the impoverished mining community of District 12 is stark and fuels the resentment that the “tributes” from district 12 feel towards the establishment. But you’re in a fight to the death, what can you do to protest?
At one level, ‘The Hunger Games’ is the ultimate reality show, where everyone is required to watch and children are killing each other with the hope of winning and gaining benefit for their district. More, though, it’s a teen romance with the requisite triangle of Katniss, Peeta and Gale. Peeta has been secretly in love with Katniss for years, something he reveals as the Games begin. Gale, as you’d expect, is hurt, particularly as Katniss demonstrates increasing affection towards Peeta as they fight to stay alive in a huge outdoor arena. Is their love genuine, or is it an opportunity to garner favor with audience and sponsors alike?
I enjoyed ‘The Hunger Games’, but ultimately was disappointed at how incredibly little character development took place. Katniss is angry with her mother, for example, but it isn’t until far into the film that we learn why. In the meantime she’s just… angry. Other characters that were critical to the book end up as one-dimensional characters without any motivation in the film. For example, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is a very important part of the book but in the film, he’s a wasted character, on screen for just a few minutes. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is an angry, disappointed former winner of the games dragooned into mentoring Katniss and Peeta, but comes across entirely too sympathetic in the film. He’s been completely screwed by the government — and President Snow — but he’s just not angry. Why?
I also can’t help but compare ‘The Hunger Games’ with ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, as both are launching strong franchises (‘The Hunger Games’ has had record-breaking advance ticket sales and I expect it’ll break $100mil this weekend). The difference is that from the very first scene we liked Harry, whereas even when the film ends, Katniss just isn’t a very sympathetic character and certainly the relationship between her and the other people who populate ‘The Hunger Games’ is tense and shallow.
Without deep characters we can identify with, ‘The Hunger Games’ just ends up an intense action film with a love triangle at its center. It could have been much, much more.