“Too much games; not enough hunger” is the snappy description of The Hunger Games given by a listener of Radio 5 Live’s “Wittertainment”. It’s an apt description, as this adaptation is a film of two halves.
The first 40 minutes, which introduce our heroine, display her impoverished lifestyle, see her volunteer to take part in the titular Games in place of her younger sister, and watch her become a supercelebrity in the build up to the Games’ commencement, are shocking, dark, lucid, touching and visceral. It’s a fascinating conceit, well realised, and Jennifer Lawrence plays her part with winning subtlety and nuance. There are moments that engage and frighten, and I found the knot in my stomach ever tightening as the Games approached.
Then the Games begin, and eat up the rest of the film. From here on, the film is episodic and dull, as the writers drop our heroine into deadly situation after deadly situation and contrive sillier and sillier means to extract her from them. Some of these contrivances (such as the nest of genetically modified wasps serendipitously hanging from a tree our heroine climbs to escape some attackers) are guilty only of being rather too convenient; others – such as the characters and creatures who suddenly and unexplicably become dramatically suicidal or life-savingly benevolent – are visible examples of the writers’ desperation to maintain the tense energy that was so powerful before the games began, or, worse, undisguised attempts to save the lead character from situations from which they clearly should have planned more plausible escapes. It feels rather like each scene was begun by one writer and completed by another, all against the clock, with no conversation between the two.
Lawrence keeps up her uniquely quiet character throughout (alongside a rather plain love interest – of sorts – who apparently learned to be the best makeup artist in the world by working in a village bakery), but sadly has to play against broadly characterless “good” kids and overpreening, blandly evil “bad” ones – with Big Evil Grins and Big Evil Snarls to make it clear that they’re Big Evil Characters (so it’s okay to kill them). I came out thinking a far more interesting film would have been one that introduced several of the contestants and explored each of their lives and personalities, and left us wondering who would survive, and how, and what it means for a sado-voyeuristic society to pit them against one another. Instead, it’s just so much substandard action trope with only one possible outcome. (Despite this, the big finale is a surprisingly underwhelming and colourless scene in which two teenagers threaten to eat some berries.)
The world outside the Games, a futuristic neon city of high society, is, if a little too startlingly wacky, visually quite interesting; but the characters inhabiting it are little more than Big Evil Viewers snarling and grinning in much the same way as the Big Evil Kids: poorly encoded nasty meritocrats operating in a repressive regime that is dull in its universality. Stanley Tucci puts in a good performance as a winningly manipulative television host, but the filmmakers broadly seem to be shouting at us: aren’t they bad bad people?
Yet I couldn’t help wondering how we, the audience, are any better than the one-dimensional coiffured voyeurs of the film, supposedly finding entertainment and pleasure in the banal and inevitable destruction of the poor. In truth, we’re most touched and engaged by the moving reality and humanity of the poverty in the first third than by the contrived attempts to excite and entertain in the latter sections. The filmmakers initially well represent the hunger and should have prioritised it over the games, just as they initially well represent the emotion and should have prioritised it over the action.