One of the most-anticipated movies of 2012, “The Hunger Games” arrived in theaters in March, with record box-office receipts for a non-sequel in midnight showings, as well as a record for the highest single-day opening. The film, based on the record-breaking “Hunger Games” trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, is vying to become the next big thing after the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series. Surely, the mad rush to see the film bears all the hallmarks of a cultural phenomenon. So, what drove people to theaters in record numbers? For one thing, the female protagonist, Jennifer Lawrence playing young adult Katniss Everdeen, becomes the central draw of the show, because we see our heroine, among other teenagers in the film, left vulnerable and exposed to the cruel world. It’s a theme that pleads for sympathy from the audience, as we hope these teenagers can survive on their own.
“The Hunger Games” starts with a brief introduction to the concept of the hunger games. We learn there are twelve districts in the nation of Panem, and each year one girl and one boy are picked from each district through a raffle to participate in a competition. From District 12, Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are paired up against their wishes for a grueling battle for survival in which participants are pitted against each other, with only one winner alive in the end. Before the start of the event, a mentor named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) provides training to Katniss and Peeta on survival and combat skills, so that she can impress the potential sponsors, who would determine if food and medical aid should be sent to players in the arena.
The concept of “The Hunger Games” is hardly original; a futuristic dystopia set in a postapocalyptic world is shown as the main driver behind the hungry games. The film’s theme recalls many movies from the past like “The Running Man,” “Lord of Flies,” “Battle Royale,” “Spartacus,” “V for Vendetta,” the “Survivor” series, and Stephen King’s book “The Long Walk” in which we find the basic premise of a hero surviving in deadly games against all odds. However, in “The Hunger Games” the games are more scientific, using computer-generated creatures and natural disasters to present new challenges to the contestants. The high-tech gadgetry is in place, tracking every player’s move. We are also reminded of Orwell’s world, showing us the Capital, the government of Penem, monitoring the moves of its citizens, just like Big Brother. The Capital exercises its full authority and control over its people, and the hunger games serve as a cruel reminder of an unsuccessful uprising against the Capitol some seventy years earlier. However, in the film and even in the book at times, I felt there was some disconnect in representing the coexistence of Penem and its people. At a conceptual level, the film fails to develop clearly the totalitarian regime, and we are left to imagine the government’s atrocities against its people.
The author, Collins, uses a heavy first-person narration from Katniss’s perspective to describe many things in the story. There are sections in the book concentrating on Katniss’s thought processes and her conversations with her “inner” voice. Katniss’s conversations with herself are the more nuanced and probably the hardest passages to adapt to the big screen, so most of this has been left out of the film. These internal conversations often occur mainly in the forest, when Katniss is struggling to stay alive from her opponents. Even though the forest is the central location for much of the action, I felt these sequences were relatively quiet. One would have expected the filmmakers to employ a heavy use of sound effects to develop a realistic action atmosphere, but since the picture plays from Katniss’s perspective, we hear only minimal sounds, mainly the nearest ambient noises. Credit goes to the filmmakers for staying true to the spirit of the book, at least in this respect.
But there are some technical problems surfacing in the film, too. Director Gary Ross, in an attempt to make the film look more like a documentary, introduces an undesirable camera shake in a few sequences. The perception of different characters plays an important role in camera movements, since Collins emphasizes many things in the first-person format. In the opening shot, the camera moves rapidly to create tension in the scene, but also to indicate the heightened tension among the people at the start of the games’ ceremony. In one instance, we see people whizzing rapidly in front of the camera, while the camera attempts to capture the faces of Katniss and her sister. Of course, this is not at all pleasing to the eye, and some of it surely causes a feeling associated with motion sickness. There are moments in the forest where this aspect becomes problematic, too. As the players are killed, their deaths are never clearly shown; instead, the camera moves away from the scene, softening the graphic violence, likely to secure the film’s PG-13 rating. But in Collins’ book, the violence and brutal deaths are rendered in gory, realistic detail.
“The Hunger Games” is an entertaining experience most of the time, further enhanced by the perfect casting of Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role. In “Winter’s Bone” (2010), Lawrence carried the entire movie practically by herself, and her character was instantly likeable and convincing. Likewise, as Katniss, Lawrence delivers another superb performance in a high-profile film. She is able to portray the energy and flamboyance expected of her character by convincingly displaying the qualities of a natural hunter caught in a survival mode. Lawrence is in almost every scene, and her charismatic presence attracts the audience to her deadly adventure. However, in spite of a captivating performance from Lawrence, who is now twenty-one years old, she at times appears a bit too mature to play the sixteen-year-old Katniss. This is just a minor quibble, though, and Lawrence makes this movie worth a watch at least once.
“The Hunger Games” can also be seen as a product of present times, especially in its depiction of a dictatorial regime, currently present in some countries. But the film introduces the teenage factor, making it instantly attractive and marketable for Hollywood’s most cherished demographic. Young blood standing against an oppressive and powerful government injects the right amount of tension, along with a romantic angle and a group of good-looking characters. On the production front, the film is quite polished. In spite of limited of use of CGI, the sets look believable for a futuristic society. “The Hunger Games” could have been much better if not for the choppy editing and abrupt character development. Nonetheless, Katniss as the heroine gets a high-tech makeover in this sci-fi adventure, and this blockbuster remains mostly a fun ride.
Lionsgate presents “The Hunger Games” in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, encoded using an AVC codec. The 1080p transfer looks wonderful, presenting lustrous images of the landscape around the jungle. Some colors have been deliberately filtered and toned down, with deep green and shiny blue colors occupying the color palette. Due to the shaky nature of the camera, some scenes have deliberate a softness, often leading to less object detail. However, when the camera is stable, the detail and sharpness are excellent and consistent. The close-ups reveal good facial details, and flesh tones never appear waxy, staying realistic and warm throughout.
“The Hunger Games” gets a thunderous-sounding 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that is immersive for the entire duration. It’s the LFE that adds a new dimension to this audio track. The track captures detailed surrounding sounds from the wildlife and presents it via the surround channels. The action moments–even though they seem quite soft compared to many other modern action movies– still boast terrific bass, making action sequences more exciting. Even in the softer moments, the soundscape remains thoroughly captivating. As expected, the dialogue appears crisp and clean.
On the first disc, the one that contains the movie, we get three short bonus features. First, “Metabeam Smart Remote” tells you how to download an app to your smartphone. Next, there is a text-based bonus feature, “BD Touch,” that provides explanation for on-screen technology that works for BD-Live and Metabeam. Finally, “DTS-HD Master Audio Sound Check” is a way to calibrate your home theater.
The second disc contains extensive bonus material. Starting off, “The World is Watching: Making the Hunger Games” is a two-hour documentary split into eight parts. The featurettes in this documentary cover a wide range of details, starting with preproduction, casting, story, script, and how the screenplay was adapted from the book. We also get insights on production techniques and marketing strategy. Next, “Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon” provides background on the author Suzanne Collins and her relationship to Scholastic Books. Up next, in “Letters from the Rose Garden” Donald Sutherland discusses the script and how it reminded him of Kubrick’s work, mainly “Paths of Glory.”
Following this, “Controlling the Games” is a short segment showing the Games’ center and high-tech room used by writer/ director Ross in adapting the book’s narration for the film. Next, in “A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell” Mitchell discusses with Ross the process of adapting the book for the film. Next, “Preparing for the Games: A Director’s Process” shows Ross discussing how he focused mainly on directing the film and away from the actual writing process. “Propaganda Film” is a short featurette narrated by Donald Sutherland explaining the origins of the games. Finally, there are theatrical trailers of the movie included, along with poster and photo galleries.
“The Hunger Games” is not a bad movie by any means. The film, in fact, sets high standards in production values and top-notch performances from everyone in the cast. But the plot, to me, feels unoriginal, and the inadequacies in the narrative are hidden by the film’s polished look. Jennifer Lawrence perfectly embodies the persona of an action female lead battling to stay alive in this deadly game of survival. As with her last two efforts, Lawrence has made amazing strides in her acting career, and I eagerly await next performance.