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.
Follow Brian D. Johnson on Twitter: @briandjohnson