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The Hunger Games
Genre Thriller
 
Review:

The Hunger Games is old hat. We've seen our fair share of films involving a group of children, forced to do combat in a confined area in a kill-or-be-killed situation. Suzanne Collins has just commericialised the format made famous by William Golding's Lord of the Flies, writing a novel that has enough human interest and viral appeal to capture a young adult readership and broader film audience.

William Golding's Lord of the Flies is the source, a novel which pitted a stranded choir of British children against each other on an island, punting the concept that man is essentially uncivilised as a reaction to World War II and idealistic novels like Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson.

The low budget experimental film adaptation of Lord of the Flies has been the inspiration for a number of similarly themed films taking the ethical dilemna, political hierarchy and darkness of human nature to concoct a story about a society where warlike savagery and tyranny reign supreme.

Two tribes, group dynamics, alliances, snuffing out contestants who don't perform or conform to expectations... you could say that the reality game show Survivor is a loose adaptation of Lord of the Flies. Take Survivor a step further and we're living in the same society portrayed in Battle Royale, Contender: Series 7, The Running Man, The Condemned, Death Race and now The Hunger Games, where televised death is a legitimate form of entertainment.

The difference between The Hunger Games and other films within the subgenre is that it aims to please a younger audience, tapping into displaced Harry Potter and Twilight fan bases. The violence has been toned down, the styling has been cleaned up and dependable name actors have been rivetted into the production for dramatic stability and broader appeal. The net has been expanded to catch a general audience and to this end - The Hunger Games succeeds with aplomb.

Casting an all-round, young at heart and nice guy director like Gary Ross was intentional. He's best known for Big, Pleasantville and Seabiscuit so the perspective is threatening yet safe enough for a young adult audience. He also draws out the emotional undercurrent, making The Hunger Games more about spirit and heart than style and action. The problem is that it sometimes borders on Spy Kids territory with enough fodder to create a spin-off spoof.

Other survival type films have been more explicitly violent. The gravity of the killing doesn't really hit home in The Hunger Games. The action closes in with splashes of blood but strays from the realistic horror of such a gruesome slaughter contest - making the content almost TV-friendly. Director Gary Ross suggests violence with a bloody brick or a lifeless body instead of being overtly graphic, making the body count seem unrealistic.

Then Ross has further distracted the audience from the reality of the situation with a vision of the future that feels like it was drafted in the '80s. The flamboyant fashion is kitsch camp, even more so than The Fifth Element and brings a surreal cartoon feel as if this were an adaptation of The Jetsons. Taking a step out of reality and deliberately stepping out of time gives us the "it could all be a dream" treatment further insulating the horror. The production is screaming for a grittier edge, but delivers a polished and detached imitation of life much like Ross's first writer-director credit, Pleasantville.

The ensemble has been bolstered by some of Hollywood's most dependable name actors: with a comic Woody Harrelson, a Terry Gilliam style talk show host in Stanley Tucci, an unrecognisable ditz in Elizabeth Banks and a dictatorial Santa in Donald Sutherland. Each of these regulars supports Jennfier Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in the same way a parent would watch over their fledlings. Although, there's not much parenting for the graceful Winter's Bone actress, who is just effortless in the lead and convincing when it comes to the athletic feats of bravery and archery, whilst retaining an emotional core.

Once we get into the Predator style playground and a few easy target contestants have been dispatched, the threat of impending death and the bristling anticipation of dog-eat-dog action makes way for a sanitised "blood bath". The story doesn't have the detail that the added dimension of religion or guerilla warfare strategy could have offered. The Hunger Games is strongest when it harnesses the tension associated with ethical fuzziness and injustice. However, this tense build-up softens for an out-of-place Twilight romance in the final act.

Suzanne Collins wrote the book with young adults in mind, but the film could have benefitted from some external influences in addition to manipulating the environment. Cheating, betting, sabotage... anything to tip the scales against the heroine would have instilled the dramatic tension needed to push through the final stage. There just doesn't seem to be enough of a struggle to stay alive as Katniss goes through the motions.

The realism also comes into question when the contestants are able to drop their guard at any given moment. There are several scenes that weren't really thought out in terms of hunt strategy and allegiances are formed without any hint of premeditation or consideration for betrayal. Questions also arise in terms of district loyalty, as contestants fail to co-operate as a team from the get-go and the romantic element just seems haphazard.

The Hunger Games seems a bit displaced. We're informed of districts, a rebellion and a governmental instituion safeguarding the fascist state. Yet, apart from some echoes of a present day real world experience - the film could have been set on Mars. This makes the story more timeless although it's the sort of detail that would've grounded the film and was probably better explained in the novel.

At two-and-a-half hours, The Hunger Games is a bit of a stretch. You can't help but wonder if adapting the novel into a TV or mini-series would have been a stronger translation. The filmmakers do enough to keep you entertained, but it's like a highlights reel from a much larger work. Delving into the mind of Katniss and extrapolating her relationship with family, friends, mentors and enemies would have given them more than enough material for a TV series and taken the pressure off the perpetual impact value of the visuals and staggered violence.

Despite all these apprehensions, The Hunger Games functions as a satisfactory piece of entertainment that will score higher with young audiences. Jennifer Lawrence is beautiful and graceful enough to hold our gaze, the story is fascinating enough to hold our attention and its vivid enough to engage our senses. The Hunger Games may be aimed at young adults, but it's broad enough to encompass older audiences too, moving from the thought-provoking philosophy of Never Let Me Go to the action intensity of Predator with a view to harnessing Harry Potter and Twilight fans.

The bottom line: Gripping

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