The Hunger Games is being trumpeted in some quarters as the new Twilight – an adaptation of a series of young adult fantasy novels which has acquired a rabid teenage fanbase. But while Twilight is firmly placed within the horror genre (though with obvious romantic inclinations), The Hunger Games deals with a dystopian sci-fi future where the United States has collapsed and subsequently re-formed as Panem under a feudal dictatorship. Each of Panem’s twelve districts are required to send two teenage “volunteers” to the Capitol every year to fight to the death until there is just one left standing – a reminder to the districts of who’s in charge, as well as suitably dramatic entertainment for the aristocratic ruling elite.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. But originality is the least of The Hunger Games‘ problems. Indeed, some of the best science-fiction films have been those that recycled ideas and plots from earlier stories. The problem comes when it fails to do anything of interest with them.
I would agree that the set up is ripe with potential. Series author Suzanne Collins has recycled ideas most obviously from Lord of the Flies and Rollerball, but you could also point to the likes of The Running Man and Battle Royale. Her stroke of marketing genius was to graft a teenage love triangle on to the side of her sci-fi mash-up and aim it at the young adult market, which the Twilight series ignited a few years earlier. Hey presto – instant cash machine. Ok, maybe it wasn’t that easy, but given the lack of inspiration onscreen I’m struggling to think of anything else that could account for the astounding success of both book and film.
Director Gary Ross spends a long time – basically the first hour – setting the story up, and boy does it FEEL like a long time. If this were an intricately detailed universe, I could understand spending the entire first half of the film on getting the two main characters - Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark – from their homes to the Capitol and kitting them out with natty new clothes (literally – this was all that happened). But this is a world that we’ve seen hundreds of times before: a future where the poor live in semi-medieval squalor and the rich live in swanky hi-tech apartment blocks and watch endless TV. The only difference here is that the rich dress like they are auditioning for an episode of Star Trek set in revolutionary France.
As if trying to compensate for this extended lack of action, Ross shoots the film in shaky-cam style dialled up to 11. I’ve never really had a problem with this hand-held style in the past; the last two Bourne entries didn’t irritate me in the way it did many others. But well done to Ross: he’s succeeded in putting the shooting style in the way of the story. It called attention to itself so much in the early stages it started to verge on parody.
When we finally get to the Hunger Games themselves, it inevitably disappoints. The action is competently done, despite being limited to a 12A classification. There’s very little blood on display after the distributor asked to be passed at that rating. The tame violence is not necessarily a problem; what is a problem is the near-total absence of suspense and excitement. The film threatens to get pulses moving in a couple of places, when Katniss and Peeta are running around the enclosure avoiding the other contestants and occasionally firing arrows. But just when you think something really interesting might be about to happen… it doesn’t. It lacks a single memorable set-piece, content instead to serve up scene after scene of running and hiding, and then some more running and hiding. And then some more again.
The actors do their best: Jennifer Lawrence at least confirms her rising star status, perfectly cast as the gutsy Katniss. Hutcherson, a bit stiff in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island a couple of months back, is also a bit stiff here as the seemingly dim baker’s boy Peeta, who mostly just waits around to be saved by Katniss and occasionally camouflages himself in icing. Donald Sutherland turns up for a few lines and takes the money. Best of all is Woody Harrelson as a former Games champion, looking both surly and silly in an unbecoming and extremely ill-advised wig.
And what of the film’s alleged satire of current television trends (so-called reality shows with contestants being voted off by a bloodthirsty public)? A character suggests at one point that if everyone stopped watching the Games, then the government would have no choice but to throw in the towel and cancel the whole thing. Quite possibly true, but that’s as sharp as the satire gets. It’s difficult to imagine legions of teenage Americans switching off America’s Got Talent as the result of having seen this film. Stanley Tucci as greasy chat show host Caesar Flickerman (yes, that really is his name) comes off as just another greasy chat show host, but in a blue wig. I assume he was supposed to be funny or critical, or possibly both, but in the event he is neither. In all honesty, The Running Man was far more savage and certainly more amusing (if not always intentionally).
By the end I had had quite enough of the film’s tepid action, tepid romance and tepid satire. It will satiate fans of the books, I’m sure – the overly long running time surely proof of its fidelity to the novel. But unless you’re a massive fan of wigs (in which case you really need to see this film), The Hunger Games amounts to little more than reheated leftovers from older, better sci-fi stories.