After much anticipation, Vicky Brewster reviews The Hunger Games and celebrates not only a strong female protagonist but a film that does her justice
Jennifer Lawrence stars as ‘Katniss Everdeen’ in THE HUNGER GAMES.
Photo credit: Murray Close
About a month ago I saw a trailer for The Hunger Games. “That looks good”, I commented. “Yes,” replied my partner, who works as one of Amazon’s Happy Little Elves. “There’s a series of books, I’ve seen them at work.” [Editor’s note: You can read The F-Word’s review of the book series here]
48 hours later I found myself gripping the collar of anyone I passed and demanding that they read this book immediately. I personally hailed it as Margaret Atwood for teenagers and as I am a huge fan of feminist dystopia, that was saying something. As you may gather, the film adaptation had a lot to live up to, not just for me, but for people who have seen the books and film introduced as “Twilight meets Battle Royale“. Reviewers have made many comparisons between The Hunger Games and other works.
As far as these comparisons go, I don’t think most of them are fair. The only things The Hunger Games shares with Twilight is a female protagonist, two potential male love interests and being adapted from a popular young adult book. Similarly, the higher-brow comparisons to Atwood and Battle Royale don’t really apply. There are nods and similar situations, but the focus and pacing of this film, as well as the world it brings to life, are a stand-alone product.
The Hunger Games (directed by Gary Ross) is a film about Katniss, a sixteen year old girl from District 12, one of poor regions in the dystopian country of Panem. Following a rebellion, which didn’t end well for the rebels, power was taken by the Capitol. As punishment for the rebels’ folly, it was decreed that every year each district would offer one boy and one girl (‘tributes’) to fight to the death until one was crowned the winner. So far so Gladiator, but in practice this plays out as an extreme reality TV show, where the contestants rely upon those watching to sponsor them and provide gifts to keep them alive. Katniss’ younger sister is selected as tribute for their district, and Katniss volunteers to compete in her place.
Already when watching the trailer, I felt it refreshing to see a film with a female lead and Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss does not disappoint. From the very first scenes, she is portrayed not just as care-giver to her younger sister, but in highly practical terms: she is the head of her family and she hunts in the woods to keep them alive. Lawrence does an excellent job of expressing the complexities of this interesting character, making her seemingly cold exterior both understandable and likeable.
The supporting cast also does an excellent job. In particular Katniss’ co-tribute Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, is charming and sensitively portrayed. Woody Harrelson, in an inspired bit of casting, is inebriated Haymitch, winner of one of the previous games, whose job is to keep Katniss alive from outside the arena. And Elizabeth Banks takes a step away from her usual roles to play prissy Effie Trinkett (right), District 12’s liaison to the Capitol during the Games.
It is difficult for me, as a fan of the books, to talk about the film without referencing the similarities and differences between the two media – though it is notable that author Suzanne Collins is also credited as screenwriter. The main shift is in the changes resulting directly from the adaptation to a visual medium. For instance, the book’s more obvious themes of female empowerment have been toned down somewhat: there are no soundbites that encourage young girls to be true to themselves instead of changing to make others like them. This sort of thing is incorporated within the overall structure of the film, in a much more subtle but no less effective way.
Consequently, the film offers a very interesting expansion of the wider feminist politics, not immediately obvious in the book. No longer tied solely to Katniss’ perspective, the film is able to focus on the wider political situation. We are shown the rebellions that begin to break out across Panem as Katniss repeatedly finds ways to express her own self rather than, as Peeta puts it, being the “Capitol’s pawn”. There are excerpts of the commentary given over the Hunger Games and scenes between the President and the Head Gamemaker.
What is most striking about this expanded perspective is the gender divide between the Capitol and the Districts. Katniss’ family is exclusively female, her father having died when she was a child, and women clearly play a strong, equal role in her community. Yet every credited character from the Capitol, with one exception, is male. The scenes where the Capitol’s political leaders discuss what is happening are clearly showing two white men supressing a dangerous female influence. Although never stated explicitly, The Hunger Games’ subtext is quite clear. This is a film that shows women are equal to men – in terms of their ferocity and fragility, their needs, their desires and their variety – but are treated by society as underdogs. And because Katniss is repeatedly underestimated, she becomes dangerous and powerful.
Despite being essentially a film about teenagers killing each other, it is interesting how innocent some parts of The Hunger Games are. There are moments in the film that could easily be turned into salacious crowd-pullers, but the director and writers have risen above such opportunities. For example, several moments in the book in which Katniss is naked are never exploited. When Katniss bathes, we are shown her grubby feet receiving a scrubbing. When she is shaved and waxed to be made acceptable in the eyes of the Capitol, she is modestly covered by a sheet. Even in the arena, having fallen down banks, been chased by fire and ultimately ended up submerged in a river, she does not even remove her coat.
Similarly with the boys (the aforementioned Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth who plays Gale, Katniss’ best friend and prospective love interest), there are no attempts to up the sexual tension with a topless scene or slow-pan closeup of their pretty boyish features. The sum total of any romantic contact amounts to one snog, one peck and some innocent hand-holding. As the film focuses on the fast moving action of the plot without lingering on love triangles, it gives a refreshing impression that everyone involved has much more important things to worry about. This opens it up to both younger and older audiences, making it a film which genuinely has something for everyone, without alienating its target teenage audience.
Katniss herself is given a strong edge by the removal of her internal monologue. Somehow, this makes her a less ambiguous character. The sections of the book dedicated to a certain amount of angst, questioning of motives or romantic tension have been virtually removed. It is clear at almost every stage of the film that Katniss is all about playing the game and intends to survive at all costs. By the end she owns her status as a quasi-political figure, defiantly looking the patriarchal President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the eye and answering back to him.
Those going to see The Hunger Games and expecting a blood bath might be in for a disappointment. Whether to keep the focus on the political arc, or out of respect for the film’s 12A rating, there isn’t a lot of gore. The deaths happen, and they happen on camera, but there are no Tarantino-esque showers of corn syrup. The initial entrance into the arena where the action of The Hunger Games plays out is described as a “blood bath”, but there is very little actual blood. Similarly the injuries afflicted on Katniss, Peeta and their fellow contestants during the games don’t seem to leave them any less pretty. Perhaps that is to be expected – they can only ignore the attractiveness of their leads for so long – but it does require some suspension of disbelief that neither Katniss nor Peeta are actually ever close to death. For anyone who’s seen the Japanese cult-horror classic Battle Royale, the similarities only go as far as the ‘teenagers fight to the death’ theme.
Purist fans of the books may also grumble about cuts and changes. Some minor characters do not seem to exist at all, the film incorporating their plot contributions in other ways. In addition to that, some lengthy scenes, made interesting in the book by character development, have been cut, with their input carried out quite competently by the work of the actors. But a good adaptation does not need to follow the book word-for-word. Emma Thompson won an Oscar for adapting Sense and Sensibility (1995) keeping six lines of its original dialogue. It is the mood, the themes and the heart of the story that count most and in this respect The Hunger Games delivers on every count.
Photos credit: Murray Close
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