A very wise and totally chaotic man named The Joker once said in “The Dark Knight” that people show you who they really are in the last moments of their life. They will abandon all common decency and withheld morals in an instant, transforming into different people right before your eyes when they are staring the prospect of death squarely in the face. Never has this been truer than in the Hunger Games in which twenty-four contestants (or “tributes,” as they’re called) between the ages of twelve and eighteen engage in a barbaric elimination game where only one person will emerge the victor. In a brief video clip of someone in the past defeating his final opponent, the person is shown smashing his challenger’s face in with a brick. These aren’t just games; they’re cruel experiments on the human condition.
Why are these poor young things battling against each other, resorting to homicidal means for victory? Quite frankly, it is a fight for their own mortality. The Hunger Games is a yearly tradition held by the aristocratic city known as The Capitol. The city has total economic dominance over the twelve poverty-stricken-by-comparison territories surrounding its border, and this tournament itself was designed as punishment for a failed uprising organized by the lesser nations long ago. The game’s sole purpose is to flaunt the authority of the ruling class and instill fear into the hearts and minds of the weak and impoverished. One boy and one girl are randomly selected from each region to contend, and statistically, they don’t have much chance of ever going back home. The upper-class elite fiendishly eat this kind of stuff up, as the games are widely broadcasted in the form of a nail-biting reality television show. Because there isn’t anything humans crave more than watching bad things happen to others.
This is the basic framework of “The Hunger Games,” the film adaptation of the first in a trilogy of wildly popular young adult novels written by Suzanne Collins (who also co-wrote the film's screenplay). Though I say ‘young adult,’ my understanding is that like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (though clearly not as global of a phenomenon), The Hunger Games is one of those transcendentally appealling literary works that bridges the generation gap and has a fair amount of adult fans as well. I approached the theater for the midnight showing last night and was surprised by how long the lines were just to get in. The fanbase turnout was easily on the level of the other young adult-geared sensations, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1.”
The franchise’s wave of popularity must have washed over me, because I heard little talk in advance until the week leading up to the movie’s premiere. In the auditorium, I struck up a conversation with an insightful fangirl sitting next to me before the film started, and she gave me a look as though I were afflicted with leprosy when I told her I had not read the books and therefore had virtually no clue what to expect. She said I would be shocked by what I was about to see. Being somewhat of a jaded film critic, I wasn’t “shocked” in the general sense of the word. I was, however, positively intrigued by the film’s universe of crooked social classes, and the extremely high stakes involved in the competition.
Our protagonist is a young woman named Katniss Everdeen, played likably by the very talented Jennifer Lawrence whose acting career has exploded since her Academy Award-nominated breakthrough performance in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” Hailing from District 12, the last of the sectors participating in a raffle for the Hunger Games (forebodingly titled the Reaping), Katniss is a tenacious spirit with a bold personality and a penchant for archery. Her first of many daring things she takes on is volunteering as tribute for the contest in place of her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), whose name was drawn from the deciding lottery. Katniss courageously puts her own life on the line so that Prim, paralyzed with fear at the thought of competing, won’t have to lose hers.
She is then transported to The Capitol by one of the city’s dolled up escorts (Elizabeth Banks, almost looking like a Johnny Depp character for a Tim Burton film). And then it hit me that I am not quite sure when this film is supposed to take place. Obviously it is a post-apocalyptic dystopian version of North America, but it is unspecified when the alleged apocalyptic event took place; the most that is inferred is that we’re about seventy-five years ahead of the rebellious events that spawned the Hunger Games. The clothing and styles in the districts look somewhat contemporary (though also a little on the squalid, hand-me-down side), while the culture in the Capitol is like a grotesquely garish amalgam of every fashion sense ever conceived in history. The primary mode of transportation, on the other hand, simulates what light rail transit would look like in “Star Wars.”
The male competitor chosen from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who falls in the same general age group as Katniss. Peeta is not exceedingly athletic or agile or adept in combat, and as a result is doubtful of his abilities to last long in the fray. The two of them undergo rigorous training courses, appear on interview shows, gain sponsors for their district, and attempt to make an impression on the wealthy citizens, all leading up to the big event. Each contestant receives his or her own housing accommodations and whatnot in the time leading up to their probable demise, and to them, it’s like getting the star treatment.
Others in the cast list include Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, a former District 12 champion who can frequently be seen sucking all the liquor out of the room. He acts as a mentor figure to the two young district representatives, though his advice for the competition never get much deeper than, “embrace the probability of your imminent death.” Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’s would-be love interest back home, Lenny Kravitz as the team’s fashion designer, Stanley Tucci (with dark blue hair) as the zealous emcee Caesar Flickerman, Donald Sutherland as the ruler of Capitol (and thus, supreme ruler of the land), Amandla Stenberg as Katniss’s ally and surrogate little sister figure on the battlefield, and Wes Bentley as the gamemaker whose indescribable beard was probably trimmed by the art design team that was behind “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“The Hunger Games” spends about half of its 142-minute running time establishing its characters, setting its grave stage, and poking satirical fun at its exaggerated caricatures of the privileged and elegant. The second half is entirely devoted to the fatal showdown with Katniss using mostly her wits (and sometimes a bow and arrow) against the vicious alliances that form amongst players. Both halves were entertaining to me, though I would say I preferred the quieter early scenes over the action-oriented moments, some of which sadly faltered due to choppy editing techniques. Regardless, the odds were ever in the favor of director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”) in this thrilling, well-paced and excellently acted adaptation.