The first film based on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has remained remarkably true to the source material, which is hardly surprising as Collins herself collaborated on the screenplay. However, as Empire’s Olly Richards has already pointed out, this adaptation adds to the original narrative by depicting more behind-the-scenes information on the running of the Games.
In my opinion, only some of these additions are successful. Director Gary Ross clearly establishes the dictatorial powers that rule Panem in the opening scene, a televised celebratory discussion of the Games which takes place between presenter Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Gamemaker Seneca Crane. Although the theme of media manipulation of the masses is immediately gestured to in this first scene I can’t help but feel that I would have preferred to have seen District 12 first. There are valid reasons for this – when Katniss’ district does appear a few minutes in the footage is brilliant. The mundane shots of people quietly walking around the dilapidated environment, as well as the later wide-angle views of these District 12 inhabitants attending the Reaping ensure viewer’s sympathies lie with the oppressed masses, an effective hook for maintaining the audience’s attention. Striking these emotional beats even earlier would have given the poverty of District 12 heightened contrast when the crowds of the Capitol appear later on.
In fact, crowd ensembles are certainly a shining feature of this film. The tracking shots of the Reaping scene not only demonstrate the rigorous controlled observation of the Capitol (the registry system being another case in point), but also allow the superb work of costume and make-up designers to be recognised. Here the drab clothing and gaunt faces of the numberless crowd invoke similar images of concentration camps, in films such as Escape From Sobibor.
Despite providing a stark contrast to Katniss’ starving world, the crowd scenes of the Capitol are perhaps even more impressive. A team of over 30 make-up artists transformed 400 extras according to the extravagant style described in Collins’ novel. What they have achieved is worthy of award recognition. The film makers have found an interesting niche, making the Capitol inhabitants look like catwalk models – the styles are extreme but not totally unreasonable. In short, this is what the world would look like if everyone dressed like Lady Gaga.
Similarly, the detail of Peeta’s incredible disguise in the river bed has also been aptly realised by the creative team of The Hunger Games. However, the photography here is too abrupt, not giving time for this great work to be properly appreciated.
However, the power of individual shots is another of the film’s strengths. Perhaps my favourite moment (and probably a shock to many) is Katniss using the futuristic TV/window in her hotel room. The tree still works extremely hard, simultaneously recalling Katniss’ memories of time with Gale in the forests of District 12, and foreshadowing the engineered ‘natural’ environment of the arena. Further shots reveal that the arena’s ‘sky’ is riddled with CGI lines, making the control of the Gamemakers unforgettable, and invoking the imagery of a net which traps the tributes. This, of course, is not far from the truth.
As well as high technical achievement, the prowess of many of the actors is also very impressive. Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, doesn’t speak for at least 20 minutes but manages impressive silent acting, so saves himself from falling into the shadow of Jennifer Lawrence.
A particularly noticeable showcase of skills is Katniss’ first interview with Caesar Flickerman. Both the actors and the director have ably negotiated the change of tone from the playful and flirtatious presentation of the dress to the sentimental memories Katniss shares of leaving her home and family.
Although it is difficult to deny Lawrence’s talent, the scenes with Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) had me squirming a little. The attempt to portray the bond between Katniss and her stylist has been misjudged by Ross, I feel; resulting in an atmosphere of sexual tension instead of platonic support. But apparently it is just me who thought this…
As I have already implied, although The Hunger Games is a successful adaptation, it does fall down as a film somewhat. This is a fault which can be variously ascribed to directing and screenwriting, and perhaps even editing. The final act of the film, particularly once the characters have left the arena, is very fragmented and fast-paced. It is here that Collins’ story feels the force of the film maker’s axe; moments are either rushed past or omitted altogether. Although this gives the film a slightly clumsy structure it certainly leaves the audience eagerly awaiting the sequel – which is of course intended.
You might also like my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.