‘The Hunger Games’ hits the mark

Jennifer Lawrence is superb, with an unflinching gaze that’s like a powerful alloy of fear and defiance

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in 'The Hunger Games'

I’m light years removed from the target audience of The Hunger Games. Wrong age, wrong gender. And I haven’t read the hugely popular young adult novel by Suzanne Collins on which the film is based. So I feel qualified to see it as a movie, not just a pop culture phenomenon. And as a movie, The Hunger Games is not just good. It’s a knockout: stylish, suspenseful, smartly acted—and endowed with more depths of  meaning than you’d ever expect from a blockbuster franchise.

There have been inevitable comparisons to the Twilight franchise, another life-and-death teen fantasy that has a heroine juggling two suitors in a love triangle. But the similarities are superficial, so let’s dispense with them right away. Twilight is supernatural fantasy that flips between extremes of earnest romance and cheesy camp. The Hunger Games is a dystopian drama with classical roots, gripping drama and a keen edge of political satire. And the love triangle plays a minor role, at least in this first movie of the series. But what makes The Hunger Games outshine Twilight right out of the gate—aside from a superior script and better direction—is the quality of the acting, especially the superb performance from Jennifer Lawrence.For the uninitiated, the movie—based on the first book in Collins’ triology—takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America, now called Panem, in which a lavish metropolis (the Capitol) maintains imperial rule over 12 poorer districts. In a slickly produced ritual based on ancient sacrifice, a teenaged boy and girl are randomly selected from each of the districts to be “tributes” in a televised blood sport—an Orwellian game of Survivor in which they must fight each other to the death in a forest intricately wired with hidden cameras, until just one warrior is left standing. It’s like a sci-fi Lord of the Flies. 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) becomes one of the combatants by volunteering to take the place of her kid sister, Primrose. Her forte is archery, a skill honed from shooting arrows at squirrels in the Appalachian hills of her impoverished coal-mining home.

It’s easy to see why Lawrence was cast. Her early scenes in Appalachia would look right at home in A Winter’s Bone, which earned her an Oscar nomination for her role as a desperate girl who plunges into an Ozark heart of darkness in search of her missing father. Throughout The Hunger Games, Lawrence invites intrigue, even in silence. Her unflinching gaze is like a powerful alloy of fear and defiance, the inscrutable look of an intrepid heroine who is both the hunter and the hunted.

She is flanked by a rich cast. Her young co-star is Josh Hutcherson, who plays the strong but sensitive Peeta, a baker’s son who becomes her fellow contestant from District 12, and is secretly in love with her. Woody Harrelson is deliciously typecast as Katniss’ drunken coach, a former contestant named Haymitch Abernathy (the names in the saga are seriously Dickensian). Lenny Kravitz portrays Cinna, her loving stylist, who designs a flaming dress that makes Katniss the pageant’s instant star. A ridiculous, blue-haired Stanley Tucci makes a meal of his role as Caesar Flickerman, the campy TV host of this brutal reality show. And an archly sinister Donald Sutherland is to the manor born as President Snow, the mild-mannered dictator who manipulates the Games for political effect.

Filmmaker Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), who co-wrote the script with Collins and Billy Ray, directs with a smart, straightforward eye. The elaborate costumes and production design lend an outlandish, Fellini-esque look to the Capitol, which has a steam-punk mix of high-tech futururism and baroque extravagance.

Although The Hunger Games originates with young adult fiction, there’s no reason why it won’t vault beyond its immediate demographic to become a must-see movie for all ages. This weekend’s box-office will be massive, leaving no doubt that the odds for this blockbuster franchise will be better than favourable.

See also: Hunger Games fans are starved for a glimpse of their favourites on film

Follow Brian D. Johnson on Twitter: @briandjohnson

 




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‘The Hunger Games’ hits the mark

  1. Dystopian sci-fi is pretty much all that is written anymore….optimism and imagination seems to have died, and people can only cope with past scenarios.

    • Have you read the book? My daughter recommended it – and I devoured the series. The books are a phenomenon for good reason. Possibly the best-written books for (or perhaps I should say primarily marketed to) young people since the Harry Potter series.

      • No, I’m not fond of dreary futures so I think I’ll give these a miss.

      • Same here, Keith. My son recommended it to me and I read all three books in rapid succession. I usually am not anxious to see the movie of a book I’ve enjoyed but the reviews for this one look pretty interesting. I’ll probably give it a look in a week or two when the crowds have died down.

        I think the line between “youth fiction” and adult fiction is really becoming blurred and that’s a good thing in my view.

        • Just got back from watching it with my daughter – she was over the moon!

          I have to say it was pretty faithful to the book and worth going to see – even in a theatre full of teenaged girls. Johnson’s review is bang on.

          I agree with your comment on youth fiction as well; I’ve read a lot of my daughter’s books on her recommendation and many are quite enjoyable for folks our age as well.

          • @KeithBram:disqus 

            Not sure what you’re classifying as the ‘good stuff’…..most of the great sci-fi writers are dead…..but I have no interest in allegories about our present world.

            Sci-fi is about the future….not morality plays about the present.

            I’m not interested in ‘Mad Max’ crap.That’s for people with no imagination, just an interest in fast cars, boobs and random violence.

            Lots of things get lumped in with sci-fi these days.  Book stores put ‘fantasy’ about dragons and ‘quest novels’ in with sci-fi now….that doesn’t mean it is.

            I haven’t the slightest interest in life and death, good and evil, hope and adversity….and all the other soaps out there.  Sci-fi is about ideas….not ancient melodramas.

            In fact I don’t understand people who like stories about schoolkids having to murder other schoolkids in some ‘survival’ plot.

            Seems very primitive to me….the very opposite of what sci-fi should be.

          • So you wouldn’t count, say, Farenheit 451 as sci-fi?

          • “Sci-fi is about the future….not morality plays about the present.”

            I don’t know what kind of pulp you’re accustomed to reading, but that’s the complete opposite of the truth: ALL the great science-fiction literature has been “morality plays about the present”. H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Arthur C. Clarke, J.G. Ballard and many other prominent writers exemplify this paradigm.

          • @KeithBram:disqus 

            Good lord, no.

    • The best science fiction has always been critical of its contemporary society.

      • The best science fiction has always been about the future.

          • If it ever had been, I wouldn’t have been reading it all my life.

          • From an interview with William Gibson

            TVP: But having said that, isn’t it a bit uncanny that all of the dystopian texts of science-fiction appear to be aiming at the present that we’re experiencing right now?
            WG: Well, I would find that spookier if I had been believing all along that those sort of dystopian themes in science fiction were about some sort of vision of the future. I think they were actually like being perceived in the past when that stuff was being written. 1984 is a powerful book precisely because Orwell didn’t have to make a lot of shit up. He had Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin as models for what he was doing. He only had to dress it up a little bit, sort of pile it up in a certain way to say, “this is the future.” But the reason it’s powerful is that it resonates of history. It doesn’t resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history. And the power with which it resonates is directly contingent on the sort of point-for-point mimesis, like sort of point-for-point realism, in terms of what we know happened.http://www.google.ca/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=science+fiction+is+always+about+the+present&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&redir_esc=&ei=qvVsT8GPMcXr0gG5wqXVBg

             1984 was powerful because it was a critique of its time.

          • The vast majority of the good stuff is an allegory about our present world – as many writers themselves have attested.

            As to your distinction (below) between sci-fi and speculative fiction: they do all tend to get lumped together these days. There aren’t many hard sci-fi writers left; these days, “the future” is largely the setting for mysteries or character-driven adventures.

            As for this series, while the story is set in a dystopian future and is literally about a life-and-death struggle, the underlying story is one of hope and overcoming adversity. Don’t knock it if you haven’t read / watched it.

          • @dougsamu:disqus 

            Gibson doesn’t write sci-fi…he writes cyberpunk drek.

            As to 1984….that wasn’t sci-fi either.Speculative fiction about society’s future may be interesting….but has nothing to do with science.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction

          • If might help if you would provide some examples of science fiction.

          • Yes, I’m also curious what exactly you DO consider to be science fiction.

        • The two are in no way mutually exclusive.

  2. I liked the book the moment I saw the title. And for the first time in my life, I read through a series without a break. It was impossible to stop!! I would love to see Tarantino’s interpretation of this story!!

    • They just officially released Battle Royale on DVD in North America 10 years after it came out in Japan. You may want to give that a watch as it’s one of Tarantino’s “wish I’d made it” films and attacks pretty much the same themes as this book.

      If not for timing and short memories, I’d suspect you’d see a lot more reviewers contrasting it with Hunger Games than Twilight.

      • Saw Battle Royale a few years back. It was fantastic! I used to imagine what hollywood could do with it! I didn’t think of comparing it with Hunger Games coz I just read the books this January. However, BR was about a classroom full of misfit students, if I recall. The similarity is only in the fact that children are vicious focus.

        I would much rather get the original version. Am afraid to think of what the American censor will have done to it!!

        There are so many new movies that could use a Tarantino remake!!

    • Nearly EVERY title on that list can be described as an allegorical critique of the present. A Canticle For Liebowitz, The Time Machine, Brave New World, Flowers For Algernon, A Clockwork Orange, etc. etc. etc. I suppose you’re going to airily dismiss all of those as being “not real science fiction”?

      • You asked for a list of classics, and I gave you one….I also said I didn’t agree with them all.

        Why is anyone even arguing about this?….we all have our favourites, and mine involve science and technology, not speculative fiction about possible future societies. The word ‘science’ in science-fiction is there for a reason.

        You can critique society in books involving dragons and swords or anything else for that matter, but it is fantasy or speculation or criticism about society by itself, not science.

        • Why are we arguing about this? YOU are the one that chose to post an arrogant dismissive comment and have been doggedly sticking to your point (it’s not even clear whether you’ve even read the book or seen the movie that is the subject of this article in the first place).

          When challenged to provide examples of what you consider to be “real” science fiction, you post a link to a list of classics, the vast majority of which actually DISPROVE your point, and then weasel around that fact by vaguely declaring that you “didn’t agree with them all”.

          So I need to ask you, once again: can you furnish even ONE title that you would hold up as a definitive example of what YOU actually consider “real” science fiction.

          • Um no, I said I didn’t like dark broody dystopian novels about the future, and I don’t.  So of course I’m sticking to that!

            I think it has to do with whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist, and I’m definitely an optimist…..so I prefer novels, movies etc that are more on the Star-Treky side of things  ….space, science, technology…..than ones that say…..’on the way to the future something dreadful happened and so now we are in the Dark  Ages again.’

            There are lots of my kind of books on that list, and since I’m allowed to have a preference, and at 65 know my own tastes fairly well…..the optimistic ones are what I choose to read.

          • Of course you’re allowed to have a preference in what you read, but you didn’t simply post your preferences in here, you made a number of bold assertions, such as:

            “Dystopian sci-fi is pretty much all that is written anymore….optimism and imagination seems to have died, and people can only cope with past scenarios.”

            “Sci-fi is about the future….not morality plays about the present.”

            “The best science fiction has always been about the future.”

            “Gibson doesn’t write sci-fi…he writes cyberpunk drek.”

            “As to 1984….that wasn’t sci-fi either.”

            And on the question of whether Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 should be considered science fiction, you retorted “Good lord, no.”

            So, you have gone FAR beyond merely stating your preference: you have made sweeping, baseless, and occasionally inane assertions, while dismissing all the other science fiction fans as if we don’t know what we’re talking about. And STILL, you have not managed to cite one single book that you consider worthy of the appellation (although I gather you prefer pulpy space operas and Star Trek novelizations). So it’s highly disingenuous to starting whining now , “gee, aren’t I allowed to have my own preferences”.

          • Well the last time I looked Canada was a democracy, and as a Canadian I’m allowed to have opinions.

            Your opinions may vary….but if you don’t want science in fiction….you’re not reading science-fiction, you’re reading speculative fiction….a sub sub genre of what I’m discussing.

            Ummm….pulpy space operas? What, like Star Wars? No, sorry,not my style.

            I was making a comment on society….one that is being voiced with increasing dismay in the US….that people seem to be losing their optimism and dreams for the future, and returning to some kind of Dark Ages mentally.

            I prefer hope….if you don’t, then YOU have a problem….but cease with the faux outrage over MY preferences. I don’t care for snotty remarks, so take a cold shower.

          • You’re the one being snotty to everyone, actually.

            One reason it’s hard to be optimistic about humanity is the frequency with which anonymous blowhards make ignorant and false assertions in public forums, and then, when challenged, say “it’s a democracy, I’m entitled to my own opinions”.

            Well, here’s my opinion: you’re not 65 years old, you’ve never read a single paragraph of science fiction, and your only reason to post here about a movie you haven’t even seen is to stir up trouble and insult far more knowledgeable people.

          • LOL what, did I ruin your thesis?

            Did I upset your elitist attitude?

            Did I insult your rather narrow education?

            Sorry….but I am 65, have read science fiction all my life, and I probably have 2 more degrees than you.

            Now go listen to something other than your echo chamber

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl07UfRkPas&feature=player_embedded

          • Just name one book you’ve actually read, that’s all any of us have been asking.

          • ???

            Most of them on that list. I just have a preference for the ones involving science.

          • Such as…?

          • I think I’ve been patient long enough, and since you can read the list as well as I can, it’s time to call a halt to this pointless whatever-it-is-you’re-doing.

            Ciao.

          • OK, take care then. I will have to conclude that you’ve never actually read any science fiction, since if you’d been reading it all your life, then surely you would be able to name at least one favourite book. (Posting a list from a website and vaguely declaring that you’ve read “most of them” but refusing to specify just isn’t all that convincing, unfortunately.)

          • Whatever….

    • Thanks for that list, Emily! I haven’t heard of most of those books. Much appreciated! :-)

      • Most welcome….some good reading there. However most of the best writers are now gone, and the newer ones….meh.

        • True. But there are still some good stories coming thru. Just have to take the time to find them. The saddest part is it is mostly fantasy fiction being mislabeled. Cheers! :-) 

  3. Although watching this argument has been the height of hilarity, I too find it odd that a life-long reader of SF cannot pick a single title to defend her thesis: that true SF is always about the future. a life-long reader myself and regular pest at the local SF reference library, I have yet to find any SF, Spec or Fantasy that bears absolutely no relation to the conditions present in society at the time of the novel’s writing regardless of the plot’s timeline or location.

    I am assuming that by ‘true SF’ this Emily person is referring to Hard SF, which is predominantly about extrapolated or experimental technology, as opposed to ‘soft’ SF which is more about the people that said technology affects (or doesn’t affect). I could argue for the presence of reality in the majority of SF, but it’s not like I’m getting marked on a lit crit essay so I won’t bother. Having drawn comparisons between Clarke, Wells and Simak in college (and an essay linking Dylan Thomas to Biblical allusion/the monomyth/the sexual revolution of the 1920′s in high school) I think that I might be in a good position to ‘see’ behind the stories I read…. Heck, there’s a Mercedes Lackey high fantasy series that reads like the Gaza conflicts. Am I imagining it? Hardly. Did she mean to do it? Not necessarily. Recall that JRRT firmly maintained that his experiences in WW1 did not in any way shape or form have any bearing on LOTR, which some might politely say is BS.

    Re: Dystopian SF: The Hunger Games: you will be happily dead when my children have to fight for scraps of resources, if you are actually as old as you say you are… Or, like in Albert Brooks’ speculation ’2030′ you will be horribly alive while myself and my children scramble to find financing for your medical bills while you live comfortably in a retirement park. The Hunger Games is both prophecy and allegory, as others have pointed out elsewhere in this magazine.

    Given the number of Golden Age dystopias post-1945 it’s a wonder you read anything at all. Or do you just read Heinleinian Juvenilia in your dotage? Do you know what’s happening outside of your personalized feeds (also predicted by Gibson et al) of adorable puppies/kittens/insert-cute-overload-pic-here, recipes for the latest Third World protein co-opted by the Health Food Industry, and celebrity ‘news’? It’s ugly here. And dark. And my generation and the Millennials and the few children being born to them need to know that no matter how mind-numbingly horrible society is/makes us feel, that the actions of a few, or one, can count for something. I had Spock, for a little while. They need something else, something that moves fast and glittering and speaks to the hollow agony of consumer culture. Don’t you wonder why zombies are being sexualized? Do you understand what that says about the conventions of our culture? I’m trying to find out.

    So, we wait on tenterhooks, beloved and most original of Emilies! Pick one of the myriad classics that you DID agree with, or try arguing your point with someone like Karl Schroeder, Charles Stross, Nancy Kress, Peter Watts, Sarah Zettel or Paul Melko. I would pay money to witness such a thing. My psychic powers tell me that should you respond to this you will pooh-pooh this short list of current hard SF writers as being ‘drek’ and unworthy of being graced by your readership (even though Mr. Gibson actually predicted cyberspace in his ‘drek’. I suppose you don’t like PKD either, even though he’s dead). If this is a correct guess I will further encourage you to enlighten us as to the true path. I plan to tell this story at all the cons I go to until people know it by heart and you’ve become a meme, ie. “OMG SO EMILY!”   (If you’re actually Sharyn McCrumb I’m super-sorry and will you sign my copy of ‘Bimbos of the Death-Sun’?)

    I hope y’all enjoyed my rant.

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