Opening day of Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games in Karachi, and there’s a young girl at the cinema wearing what look like homemade mockingjay earrings.
For those unfamiliar with Suzanne Collins’ bestselling YA trilogy known mostly as the Hunger Games books, a mockingjay is a genetically modified bird that is the central motif and icon of the entire trilogy, and this young woman’s earrings make me realise the extent of the book’s fan following in Pakistan.
Of course, as with any art form being re-imagined into another, the question of whether the film will satisfy the way the books did is present — on the flipside there is the possibility the film will alienate those unfamiliar with the books.
The Hunger Games is set in a future dystopic totalitarian version of America, torn asunder and put back together as Panem: a collection of 13 districts ruled by the Capitol, a rich, hedonistic society constantly in need of entertainment. As a punishment for a previous uprising, the Capitol conducts an annual ‘reaping’ in each district, where two young adults are picked by random lottery to participate in the Hunger Games, a gladiatorial battle where these children are forced to kill each other until only one survives.
In true Big Brother style, the games are televised live for the entertainment of the Capitol, with rich ‘sponsors’ placing bets on the ‘tributes’. In the destitute coal mining District 12, we meet Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers as a tribute to save her frightened, weaker younger sister from inevitable death in the Games.
Jennifer Lawrence (previously nominated for an Oscar for her role in Winter’s Bone) is excellent as Katniss, and she had better be, considering she is the focus of all but a dozen shots in the movie. Ross places her perfectly for a concrete alignment of the audience with Katniss as the central, sympathetic character. It’s important to create sympathy for her visually, as the entire film’s dialogue is mostly explanatory exposition.
Dialogue isn’t the film’s strength — but Lawrence’s performance is. In fact, most of the cast manage well with their limited talk and screen time: Elizabeth Banks is brittle and entertaining as the tributes’ chaperone Effie Trinket, Lenny Kravitz with his gold eyeliner is quiet and elegant as stylist Cinna and Stanley Tucci is glorious as the seemingly superficial and effervescent TV show host Caesar Flickerman. The only disappointment is Woody Harrelson, who plays past winner and current drunkard coach Haymitch to the District 12 tributes. It’s possible that the need for a lower rating has forced him to play this role a little more like a comic drunk than a sardonic, massively self-destructive one.
In order to achieve a PG-13 rating for the film, Collins’s has toned down a great deal of violence that existed in her books for the screenplay. The scenes of teenage massacre are rapidly edited, jagged and quick with no central focus on each actual killing. The handheld camera/ faux-documentary footage look works for these scenes, but is fairly overwhelming earlier in the film, with scenes set in District 12 that are just too shaky for too long. Of course, in comparison to these and the depression era look of District 12, the film really establishes its aesthetic once it follows Katniss to the Capitol, which is very much like Dorothy’s arrival to the sudden blinding technicolour of Oz. Each shot becomes static, large and taut, playing up the highly charged emotions that roil under a mostly outwardly stoic protagonist.
The Hunger Games is a good movie — whether you’ve read the book or not. It could have been a great movie, had the scriptwriters and director been willing to go as deep and as dark as the book sometimes did. But there will always be a strange lurking emptiness in a film that just simply can not contain all the details of a book. What’s most important about Gary Ross’ film is that it brings to the screen a young female protagonist with agency — one we haven’t seen the likes off since Joss Whedon’s Buffy. Here is a young woman who does not need saving, who saves herself again and again, and others around her too. Katniss is who this story is about — she is hero, saviour, lover, rebel, harbinger of change all rolled into one young woman with a penchant for Diana’s archery, and I promise you, she’s going to knock that Bella off screen and into the medieval pre-feminism gutter where she belongs.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 1st, 2012.