It is near implausible, even impossible for such a world to exist in reality, that is, if that reality is bound by the rules of humanity. A world where 24 children aged 12 to 18 are randomly picked to fight each other to the death in a national televised event. But that world does exist in The Hunger Games, a screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins' wildly popular novel for young adults. Directed by the Oscar-nominated Gary Ross, who previously made Pleasantville (1998) and Seabiscuit (2003), The Hunger Games appears to be the next big 'book-to-screen' franchise after 'Harry Potter' and 'Twilight'.
Rising star Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone, 2010) plays Katniss, a resolute and resourceful young woman who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister to represent her district to compete in the 'Hunger Games'. The film is shot and written from the perspective of Katniss, as she brings us right into the heart of a brutal hunting game after an excellent setup. John Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right, 2010) plays Peeta, also selected from Katniss' district, and who secretly has a crush on her, but has to come to terms that one of them has to die for there can only be strictly one survivor, that is, if both of them manage to stay alive throughout.
Lawrence's performance is assured, and she comfortably carries the entire film on her own, outclassing supporting acts by veterans Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson. It is as if she was pluck out of Winter's Bone, and found herself with a bow and arrow in a foreign land. It is essentially the same character and the same performance. In other words, you won't get a better casting decision in a Hollywood blockbuster than Lawrence playing Katniss. Her chemistry with Hutcherson, however, remains slightly weak, and it remains to be seen if future sequels can show an improvement.
Though denied by writer Collins that she got her literary inspiration for The Hunger Games from Battle Royale (2000), it is hard not to draw strong parallels with the Japanese cult hit about the Japanese government capturing a class of ninth-grade students and forcing them to kill each other on a remote island. And yes, there would only be one survivor too. While the violence and thematic material in The Hunger Games can be disturbing to younger kids, it remains to be Battle Royale X-tra Lite.
The Hunger Games is a strong social commentary on people's collective fascination with reality television, and celebrity culture (it owes some debt to The Truman Show (1998) too), while also covering themes on authoritarian oppression, economic segregation, and Man's capacity to kill another in cold blood. However, it is our shared common humanity - the ability to love, respect, and sacrifice for one another, that is most resonating. This is best exemplified in Ross' film in a sequence with Katniss and a small black girl named Rue.
The Hunger Games has an absorbing setup, but does not pay off as well as expected in its final act. Not that it needs an epic action set-piece to do so. It is a problem of character development. Despite Lawrence's strong performance, Katniss is someone who seems to have the odds in her favour. Perhaps too much in her favour that somewhere in our minds, we know she will be safe, and she will be the heroine. So any suspense that Ross tries to generate through editing and camerawork achieves little effect, though I must say there is an effectively intense sequence involving an animal attack and chase through the dark woods.
The Hunger Games is a decent blockbuster, and if you would overcome some of the laughable rules of the 'Games' , and take them on face value, it is still an enjoyable experience for someone who has not read the film's source before like myself. Of course, for those who are huge fans of Collins' work, watching The Hunger Games on the big screen could be one of the best days of their lives.