The Hunger Games Review
Deep in the heart of the North American continent, situated near the mountain range once called the Rockies, lies the gleaming Capitol city of the country of Panem. The Capitol is the seat of government for Panem's 13 outlying districts which occupy the landmass once known as the United States, the country having been decimated by a global catastrophe and then riven by a terrible civil war. After this bloody uprising against the oppressive rule of the Capitol three-quarters of a century ago, District 13 was destroyed for its insolence and the remaining 12 have operated in servitude ever since, providing unique resources for the Capitol to exploit. None more unique, in fact, than the 'tributes' – a boy and a girl aged between 12 and 18 from each district – who are chosen at random to compete in the annual Hunger Games, a televised orgy of death and violence with only one winner that serves to remind the districts of their penance, which will be taken in perpetuity.
As the film begins we are introduced to 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen on the day of the Reaping, when the tributes will be chosen for this year’s Games. She’s a hardened hunter and born survivor, part of the wretched masses of District 12, and lives in a town nicknamed the Seam, where most of the inhabitants toil to extract coal for the glorious Capitol. Alongside Katniss is her younger sister Primrose, and their mother who suffered a nervous breakdown years ago after the sudden death of Katniss' beloved father in a mine explosion. As the tributes’ names are drawn, Katniss finds that she must voluntarily step in and face the fight of her life to protect those whom she loves, and as the Games unfold she unwittingly becomes a powerful symbol of the simmering unrest in the districts. Then she discovers that the battle has only just begun...
Suzanne Collins’ novel (the first part of a trilogy) is yet another literary sensation resulting from books aimed squarely at young adults, but it’s far removed from the fantastical leanings of your Harry Potters and the chick-lit stylings of your Twilights. Collins’ world is grounded in a grimy post-apocalyptic reality, full of dirt and gore and death, and while some of these aspects don’t make it all the way into the movie version, the film retains enough of the gritty flavour of the book to get the point across. The first-person narration has been eschewed for a more conventional third-person approach, so even though the story may seem a little choppy without Katniss’ thoughts constantly guiding us, we are now given a wider scope in terms of the supporting characters and their motivations. And the performances are usually nuanced enough to convey what isn’t being said, with only one or two exceptions.
The casting was central to this whole endeavour, and the filmmakers got it spot on. Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful as Katniss, the conflicted girl at the heart of the story who must learn how to play the game in order to survive. Peeta Mellark, the other tribute from Katniss' district, is played by Josh Hutcherson, and his country-boy looks and muscular frame are a perfect fit for the burly baker’s son who professes his love for Katniss. Liam Hemsworth doesn’t quite light my fire as Gale, Katniss’ longtime friend and hunting partner, because he doesn’t capture the smouldering rage of the character as realised by Suzanne Collins. That said, there's now some room for Gale to become the angry young man of the books, so I'm not writing off Mr Hemsworth just yet.
Woody Harrelson wasn’t a name that immediately sprang to mind as being suitable for the drunken, slovenly Haymitch Abernathy, former Hunger Games winner and mentor to Katniss and Peeta. However, he's very good value as the man scarred by the futility of the Games who finally finds some salvation with his two new charges. Effie Trinket, the Capitol’s chaperone for the Seam’s tributes, is conveyed with maddening – but accurate – eccentricity by Elizabeth Banks. Head game maker Seneca Crane is realised by the ineffective Wes Bentley, although he does have a cool beard. Donald Sutherland gets a small but vital role as President Coriolanus Snow, the sinister leader of Panem who’s desperate to cling on to his power and is all too aware of the danger that Katniss poses, should she become a figurehead for the rebellion. Stanley Tucci, sporting an immaculate blue coiffure and a mouthful of pearly whites, is outstanding as Caesar Flickerman, talk show host extraordinaire. Alexander Ludwig is suitably deranged as Cato, the bloodthirsty tribute from District 1. And an honourable mention goes to Lenny Kravitz (yes, that Lenny Kravitz) for his composed turn as Cinna, Katniss and Peeta's sensitive stylist.
Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) is a screenwriter by trade, and he took Billy Ray’s first draft and fine-tuned the script with the assistance of Suzanne Collins herself. There is the usual amount of contraction, paring down time and space to fit the 142-minute confines of the movie, but there is also expansion. We can now sit alongside the game makers as they make Katniss' life hell in the arena, and witness President Snow’s exasperation at Katniss’ growing popularity (indeed, he gets the last shot in the film, full of brooding menace as he turns from camera to plan his next step). All are things that are implied in the book through Katniss’ musings, but seeing them helps to balance the film, giving us a clear sense of the help or hindrance that these characters represent. The parts that have been left out are often referenced in other ways; a certain character's agreement to cut back on the booze is paid no lip service, but during a dinner scene he quietly refuses a top-up to his drink.
Little touches like that are present throughout the film, allowing the narrative to retain its momentum. It’s a fine line to tread because the filmmakers don’t want to alienate those who haven’t read the book by presenting a leaden 3-hour lump of a movie, yet they will also want to reward avid fans at the same time. Things will always have to be omitted over the course of an adaptation like this, but it's the changes that can be more contentious, and one that did bother me was how Katniss got the mockingjay pin, which comes across as a bit arbitrary. I can understand why they changed it, because it would’ve meant introducing another set of minor characters which the film doesn’t have time for, but I don’t like how they’ve changed it. Still, it’s a minor niggle and the film hits most of the key beats that it should do, throwing in a few new ones for good measure.
Turning now to Ross' directorial choices, he decided to shoot the film in a shaky handheld style, with few glossy visual concessions save for the CG realisation of the Capitol's brutalist architecture, but it’s no mere stylistic affectation in this case. Ross’ reasoning is quite clear; if we were to get a shiny, colourful $200 million dollar movie lovingly scored by John Williams then all we would be doing is glorifying the murderous action - not unlike the residents of the Capitol. The loose camerawork and occasionally jarring editing forces the viewer to concentrate on the story, instead of marvelling at the fancy CG or whatever, and James Newton Howard's intelligent music score (he's devised simple strings and tinkling motifs for Katniss and big, grand themes for the Capitol) is much more effective than the sonic wallpaper that passes for movie music these days. It's interspersed with dramatic stretches of total silence, usually during moments of mayhem which serves to make the visuals that much more intense because there's no sound to distract you from what you're looking at.
Celebrating death in the usual flashy Hollywood way would also be at odds with the key allegorical message of the story, that of a nation sending its young people off to die in pointless wars, when the real battles must be fought closer to home. And it’s no coincidence that the minority of well-off districts train their kids well in advance who then volunteer for the Games - the so-called ‘Careers’ - while the poorer, blue-collar areas submit ill-prepared youngsters who are basically fresh meat for the grinder; it's a quite deliberate echo of the typical organisation of military recruitment.
There is of course the obvious skewering of reality TV inherent to the premise, yet that aspect is undercooked in the film. Ross perhaps realised that even though it makes for juicy satire it’s not a difficult target to hit, owing to the inherent inanities of the reality format. In the book Katniss is very aware that she must perform, to play to the crowd to get gifts from her sponsors, and losing the first person narration greatly reduces those internal references in the movie version, though there are still one or two external ones ("You call that a kiss?") to remind the audience. But all too often it feels like she's simply battling against her fellow tributes, instead of actively playing the game. So without that angle on proceedings, there was an opportunity to provide an alternate viewpoint from the Capitol, as if we were watching the Games with them.
Some people may feel that such a perspective would also make us, as audience members, complicit in the wholesale murder being carried out for entertainment - something which Ross wanted to avoid, as I mentioned earlier - but the chance was there to ram home how absurd the Capitol is, maybe with some ironic Robocop-style advert breaks. Instead we have to settle for occasional commentary from Tucci’s Caesar, alongside Toby Young as arena announcer Claudius Templesmith. And yet, even that device isn't utilised to lampoon any particular facets of modern TV, it's used to just shoehorn in some blatant exposition about the dangers of the arena. When we do cut away to the solemn looking residents of Panem as the Games reach their emotional finale, it has little impact because we didn't really see them laughing and joking and cavorting as prior tributes met their ugly deaths. Still, it goes without saying that this is Katniss' story and I will concede that seeing too much of the Capitol during the Games would've diluted the character's quest too much. No Mediabreak for me.
The ending is somewhat rushed through, but given that there’ll be three films to follow this one (they’re splitting the last book into two movies, following the lead of Potter and Twilight) I suppose there’ll be plenty of time to cover the ground that’s been hurriedly passed over. And some small part of me hoped that the movie would be an R-rated version, full of the grisly details of the book, but an adult-oriented adaptation would’ve been commercial suicide, not to mention contrary to Suzanne Collins' message. Alas, Katniss’ grotesque tracker jacker hallucinations shall remain on the page, as will the hideous ‘muttations’ of dead tributes which appear near the end (which were downgraded to regulation CG terror dogs for the film). Several of the smaller subplots from the book have also fallen by the wayside which may annoy some fans, but minor story stands are the first casualties of film conversions, and as long as the central plot threads are presented faithfully then I don't have a problem with losing certain things.
It would’ve been easier for the filmmakers to churn out a lazy one-note reworking of the book, seeing as the film would've been critic-proof owing to the loyal fanbase of readers, but thankfully they’ve delivered something which retains the core themes and ideas of the source material without pandering to typical blockbuster sensibilities. It feels like the finished article as well, like a complete film rather than a glorified holding pattern while we wait for an extended version, and Ross has stated in interviews that this is his definitive director's cut of the movie. He's not going to do the sequel, which is a pity, but I can't see Lionsgate dropping the ball after getting The Hunger Games off to such a good start.
Please note: This 15-rated UK Blu-ray, locked to Region B, is the full uncut American version of the film. It restores some brief but intense shots of bloodletting which were cut and/or toned down for the 12-rated UK theatrical release. The UK DVD has retained the cut version, but kudos to Lionsgate for realising that the overwhelming majority of Blu-ray users are over the age of 12 and, as such, won’t be troubled by a few splashes of blood. Smart move. What wasn’t so smart was farming out some retailer exclusive content to Sainsbury’s, in the form of a third disc with a few extra featurettes on it (which appears to be the same content as the Target exclusive in the US). That material was not provided for review, but I have bought the Sainsbury’s edition myself and my thoughts on the extra extras are below.
The DiscThe Hunger Games
comes to us in 2.40 widescreen, as per the theatrical presentation. The movie was shot Super 35 and finished on a 2K Digital Intermediate, meaning that there’s no reason why this Blu-ray encode edition should look any different from the 2K digital version that I saw at the cinema.
Fine detail ranges from good to exceptional. I was often able to see the small scars on Jennifer Lawrence’s left cheek and the cute downy fluff above her top lip, as well as every nook and cranny in the wooded arena. Some faces in a handful of bluescreen shots look very processed and smoothed over, but apart from those the detail is crisp without ever looking artificially sharp, i.e. edge halos are non-existent. The image is very clean, although I did detect a couple of white specks here and there.
Black levels vary, with most dark scenes looking rich and deep, although a few look a bit washed out with a slight blue cast. And I can clearly make out the windows used during the grading process to highlight certain parts of a darker image. Grain tends to spike in such dimly-lit shots, which is par for the course, but it settles down into a very fine patina during daylight hours or bright interiors. Contrast is handled well, never blowing out daytime shots or gobbling up shadow detail in the nighttime ones. Aside from some slight banding on a couple of fades, there are no major compression problems to report on this AVC encode.
The colour is very pleasing to my eyes, because it’s mostly free of the ubiquitous teal and orange trend. The Seam is presented in simple, earthy tones, as it should be, and its residents have the requisite pale, grimy complexions. The Capitol is the polar opposite, with every garish colour combination of the costumes and wacky make-up jobs on full display. When we move to the arena the greenery is lush and vibrant, the colour grade allowing the different trees, plants and mosses to retain their own distinct hues.
Audio is presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. It’s got clear dialogue and layered music presentation which likes to swirl around the sound stage. There are some decent discrete effects for the rears too, like the thrum of the Capitol’s hovercrafts, and the bass is impressively strong when called upon, yet the mix never really cuts loose. It feels a little constrained, like it can’t quite shake the confines of its theatrical 5.1 forebear. Rear channels aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of a mix, granted, yet when it says 7.1 on the tin I’m entitled to expect an expansive sound experience, no? Still, the visuals have been deliberately dirtied up so as not to appear too glossy and ostentatious, so it could be that the sound mix has also been reigned in so as not to titillate the audience too much (my suspicions were confirmed, more on that in the next paragraph). It’s a very solid effort nonetheless.
The extra features are all on disc 2. The real meat can be found in The World Is Watching: Making The Hunger Games, a 2-hour documentary that covers the film from inception through to release, viewable in 8 parts or as one complete whole. Director Ross is the star of the show, and his strong influence throughout the moviemaking process is made clear, as is the devotion of his cast and crew to making his vision a reality. We learn about the initial writing phase, casting, production design, location shooting, studio shooting, special effects, post-production (where Ross confirms that he didn't want an OTT all-action sound mix) and finally the reaction to the theatrical release, supported by behind-the-scenes video clips and comments from all the key production staff and cast members.
Their contributions can be a little self congratulatory at times, but they've all earned their chance to wallow in their success, seeing as the film took over $400 million domestically as well as a slew of critical accolades. As we look at Ross in action and witness the freedom that he was given to make the film, you realise that it's all the better for not having been a big tentpole picture from one of the major studios. Lionsgate deserve a lot of credit for allowing Ross to make a story about ordinary people surviving extraordinary times, rather than the dystopian sci-fi action extravaganza that it could so easily have been turned into.
The rest of the extras are divided into smaller bites. Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and the Hunger Games Phenomenon is a 14-minute featurette focussing on the overwhelming success of the book. It's interesting enough, but we don't hear from Collins herself and there's not a great deal more information here than in the back pages of my copy of the book. A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell, as the title implies, is the director talking to film critic Mitchell, the latter asking Ross about certain scenes and how he arrived at his filmed versions of them (it's the nearest thing we get to a director's commentary). It's only 14 minutes long, though.
Donald Sutherland gets his chance to shine in Letters From the Rose Garden, a 9-minute featurette about his interpretation of President Snow. He reads out a letter that he sent to Ross, full of his unique insight into the character and what it takes to play men like him. In the book we only got Katniss' views of him, but Sutherland's letter set off a lightbulb in Ross' mind and led directly to him writing the new rose garden scenes where we see Snow speak to Crane outside of the Games.
Controlling The Games is a short 5-minute piece about the clinical Apple-esque control centre where the game makers direct the action, another necessary addition for the film. Gary Ross' previsualisation technique is briefly covered in Preparing for The Games: A Director's Process, a 3-minute Blu-ray exclusive. The cheesy Propaganda Film seen in the movie is presented in its 94-second entirety.
Next up is the Marketing Gallery, comprised of two regulation stills galleries, one for posters, one for photos. There's nothing here that can't be viewed with a quick search on the internets. But it's a shame that there are no theatrical trailers, which is odd because the impact of the first trailer is mentioned in the main documentary, yet we can't view it on the disc. Sure, you could also find them on the web, but video features like that should really be included with the retail release of the film. (Apparently the trailers ARE on the US version, trust Lionsgate to find something to leave off.)
The Sainsbury's exclusive Blu-ray disc includes a couple of really sweet little features. Stories From the Tributes is a 17-minute collection of interviews with the supporting cast, chiefly Leven Rambin (Glimmer), Amandla Stenberg (Rue), Dayo Okeniyi (Thresh), Alexander Ludwig (Cato), Jack Quaid (Marvel), Isabelle Fuhrman (Clove) and Jacqueline Emerson (Foxface). They share their experiences from the shoot, including several funny anecdotes. In the Tribute Video Diaries, the aforementioned actors were all given a mini video camera to document the press tour, and it's 16 minutes of candid in-your-face footage. The Tribute Photo Gallery is a lovely collection of snaps from those same people, not from the filming but from their downtime which they clearly spent with each other. Lastly, the Biographies are a simple set of vital statistics on the main tributes.
Suzanne Collins inadvertently summed up the process to make the movie in the book itself. I'll let Katniss explain further, as she tells us about the highlights package of the Games: "Condensing several weeks into three hours is quite a feat. Whoever puts together the highlights has to choose what sort of story to tell". In choosing writer/director Gary Ross, Lionsgate found the right person to tell this story the right way. The adaptation is lean without sacrificing the personal slant which made the book so great, the performances are excellent, the action is sensitively handled (though still intense) and the visual style isn't herky-jerky handheld for the sake of it.
This Blu-ray edition is a worthy companion for the film. The video quality is superb for what it is. It's not a demo disc by most standards but is unerringly accurate to the theatrical presentation, and it hammers home the intentionally scuzzy aesthetic. The audio is of a similar bent, crafted to relate a sense of reality instead of overwhelming the viewer with sonic acrobatics. The extras aren't quite as expansive as I would've liked, as aside from the main documentary they're a bit fluffy. That documentary is still a terrific insight into what it took to get the movie made, but deleted scenes, trailers and perhaps an audio commentary would've been a nice way to round off the package. Maybe we'll get that stuff on the inevitable re-release. However, until then The Hunger Games comes highly recommended on Blu-ray.