When a massive movie franchise comes to a close, often a hole can develop in the highly competitive market of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. Perhaps never before has that hole been as large as the abyss left by the HARRY POTTER series, given the rapid release schedule of those films. It’s 2012, and there’s no new POTTER. Some might argue that the TWILIGHT series fills the void, yet not only is that franchise little more than a punchline to all but the hardcore fans, it too is set to (hopefully) wrap up this year. Enter THE HUNGER GAMES, seemingly a sure thing based on the POTTER formula: hugely successful series of young adult novels? Check. Talented cast of young leads and respected character actors as support? Naturally. Large scale production and, crucially, marketing budget? You bet. So is THE HUNGER GAMES worthy of taking up the POTTER mantle?
Amazingly, it might be even better.
While no-one would suggest that THE HUNGER GAMES is the most original new property coming from the Hollywood machine, Lionsgate and director Gary Ross adapt Suzanne Collins’ source material in just the right ways, jettisoning un-cinematic elements and focusing on the meat of the story right from the opening frame. Rather than build the world of Panem through tedious exposition and backstory, Ross instead drops us directly into the grim life of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her journey to the Hunger Games, a perverse spectacle inflicted annually on 24 unfortunate teens. While the POTTER series certainly headed in a darker direction as it went on, THE HUNGER GAMES is horrifically bleak right from the get go, and Ross’ decision to show instead of tell, through the use of wonderfully expressive, fluid camerawork, paints an ugly picture indeed. There are so many refreshing elements at work here, with an active, independent, and strong female protagonist and a startling absence of overblown CGI, but it’s the nastiness that makes this film unique. Delivering a family appropriate experience while retaining the majority of the violence and unpleasantness of the novel is a delicate proposition which Ross mostly pulls off, but one can’t help wondering about the potential for a much harder, R-rated cut of the film. It’s an understandable issue to be sure, but an issue nonetheless.
Where THE HUNGER GAMES perhaps doesn’t fare so well is in the internal strife faced by Katniss, particularly in regards to potential love interests Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Collins’ novel has much more freedom to explore, and even dwell on, Katniss’ emotional state through inner monologue, but given the nature of film, particularly a mainstream blockbuster such as this, much less room is left for introspection, and some of the character dynamics and relationships suffer in comparison. Katniss’ independence is unfortunately undercut by the franchise building mentality of the film, setting up an inevitable love triangle to be explored in two potential sequels. That said, she’s still a much more positive, appropriate female role model than TWILIGHT’s limp and passive Bella Swan, or indeed any young female character in recent memory. THE HUNGER GAMES is an important film at many levels, one which heralds the birth of the next big Hollywood franchise, and if the quality of the first installment is maintained then the sequels can’t come soon enough.