Director: Gary Ross
142 mins, 12A, out this friday
starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks
The art of adaptation is one which many writers and directors are now intimately familiar. As original films dry up faster than fossil fuels, Hollywood has developed a love affair with anything it can squeeze a license out of; theatre, tv shows, remakes and of course books. Which brings us to The Hunger Games, a movie that more than anything in recent memory proves that there is indeed an artistry to adaptation. Gary Ross’s film of Suzanne Collins’s mediocre teen novel trims the fat and delivers a slick and thrilling blockbuster.
The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future, where the ruling class inhabit a lavish secluded capital, while the subjugated working classes provide them with raw materials from the far less glamorous twelve districts. As penance for an ancient uprising, the districts must each year offer two children to be entered into the titular Hunger Games, a televised week long battle to the death, overseen by the thoroughly sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The story follows the tributes from district 12, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and sort-of love interest Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), as the fight for their lives in the arena.
What makes The Hunger Games such a triumph is Ross’s ability to take the basic structure established in the book, ground it, enrich it, and give it a new found flavour. The once bland tale has been unwound by the directors steady hand and remade in a captivating new form with likeable characters, tension and emotional weight, none of which were present in the novel. Ross has made few compromises for the novel’s young audience and the film tackles its brutal subject matter head on. From the downtrodden and ramshackle districts, to the resplendent architecture and frivolous fashion of the capital, the world is so thoroughly realised that it’s easy to be almost instantaneously wrapped up in it. Unfortunately, much like the book, the actual hunger games themselves are by far the least compelling part of the story. After setting up such a richly detailed world and cast of characters, it’s disappointing to spend the last hour or so locked away from most of them. This is only magnified by the rushed ending which fails to give the supporting cast their due.
The Hunger Games delivers a diverse and genuinely congenial cast of characters, realised both through the writing and performances. Lawrence is captivating as no nonsense protagonist Katniss. Much as her character must vie for the crowd’s support in the games, Lawrence defies the odds by making self serious Katniss an easy heroine to root for. Josh Hutcheson is charming and competent as Peeta. The supporting cast is equally engaging, if not more so, standouts being Woody Harrelson as pessimistic mentor Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks as pedantic and aloof escort Effie Trinket and Stanley Tucci as the oddly loveable games presenter Ceasar Flickermann.
The action in Hunger Games is distilled through the consistent use of turbulent hand held and point of view shots. Not only does this allow for violence to be implied with out too much gore, but it serves to give audience a visceral sensation of inhabiting the world. That said, while the effect masks the action for younger viewers, it also makes certain action set pieces a little difficult to follow.
With The Hunger Games, Gary Ross has crafted an almost flawless template for adaptation. It takes a distinctly average source material, tweaks and hones it, cuts out the fluff, and delivers not just a different, but a vastly super interpretation of the material. However it’s still beholden to some of the weakness of the original story, and some of its own. Despite this, The Hunger Games delivers something special, an adaptation that surpasses the limitations of its source to become a film that can -and will- be enjoyed by anyone.