The year 2008 saw the publication of a best-selling novel for young adults called "The Hunger Games". Written by Suzanne Collins, the novel's success led to the publication of two sequels and a Hollywood adaptation of the first film.
Directed by Gary Ross and adapted by him, Collins and Billy Ray; "THE HUNGER GAMES" is about a sixteen year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in the nation of Panem, which consists of a wealthy city called the Capitol that is surrounded by 12 less affluent districts. As punishment for a past rebellion against the government, the Capitol created the Hunger Games – a televised annual event in which one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts are selected in a lottery as "tributes". They are required to fight to the death in a wilderness arena until there is one remaining victor. When the name of Katniss' sister, Primrose, is called as the female tribute for their district, the 16 year-old volunteers to take Primrose's place in order to save the latter from participating in the 74th Hunger Games. Katniss is joined by her district's male tribute, the son of a baker named Peeta Mellark. They travel to the Capitol to train for the Hunger Games, under the guidance of former victor Haymitch Abernathy.
When the media blitz for "THE HUNGER GAMES" had first began, I dismissed it. Especially since all I heard were comparisons to the HARRY POTTER franchise. The comparisons merely led me to roll my eyes in contempt. Not even the publicity blitz surrounding Suzanne Collins' literary trilogy could generate my interest. However, by the time "THE HUNGER GAMES" was a week or two away from its theater release, I suddenly became interested. My interest was ignited by the fact that over a month had passed since I last saw a decent new movie. I went to see the movie at my local movie theater and left feeling more than satisfied.
I might as well admit it. I was very impressed by "THE HUNGER GAMES". I was more than impressed. Director Gary Ross did a superb job in bringing Suzanne Collins' novel to life on the movie screen. More importantly, the movie's dark portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future not only impressed me, but frightened me a little. Considering the present economic state of the world, it was pretty easy to image such a future for this country. "THE HUNGER GAMES" was not the first science-fiction movie with a setting featuring a wide disparity between the haves and have-nots. Last fall saw the release of a movie called "IN TIME". Whereas that movie suffered from a plot that went nowhere in its last act, "THE HUNGER GAME" ended on a more satisfying note - aside from the last minute or two. There were two main aspects of "THE HUNGER GAME" that made this movie so terrifying to me. One, the participants of this deadly game were children between the ages of 12 and 18, not adults. And more importantly, the actual games, which unfolded through two-thirds of the movie, came damn close to be a young adult remake of the chilling 1972 movie,"DELIVERANCE". Watching a group of adolescents and pre-adolescents being forced to ruthlessly kill each other pretty much made my skin crawl. Kudos to Suzanne Collins for creating a very effective tale and the same to Ross for translating it so well to the screen.
I was not surprised to learn that the exteriors for "THE HUNGER GAMES" were filmed in North Carolina. The movie's opening sequence, along with the setting for the actual games did look as they had been filmed somewhere in that state. However, I was surprised to learn that the entire movie was filmed there. Apparently, Lionsgate took advantage of an $8 million tax break from North Carolina in order for the movie's principal photography to take place there. Most of the outdoor scenes - the arena and the District 12 outskirts - were filmed at the DuPont State Forest. And cinematographer Tom Stern did an excellent job in doing justice to the location's natural beauty. But he, along with Ross, did an even better job in transforming the cities of Shelby and Charlotte. They were aided by production designer Phil Messina, whose designs for the Capitol were inspired by 1939 New York's World Fair, along with Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Red Square in Moscow. Messina's designs gave the Capitol an extravagant and decadent feel, in sharp contrast to the rural poverty of District 12. I was also impressed by Judianna Makovsky's colorful costume designs, along with the outrageous hairstyles and make up - especially for the characters in the Capitol.
But the movie's plot, production designs, cinematography and other aspects of "THE HUNGER GAMES" would not have worked without Gary Ross' direction and the outstanding cast led by Jennifer Lawrence. I have only seen Lawrence in one previous movie - last year's "X-MEN: FIRST CLASS" - and I was impressed by her performance. But she was even more impressive as this movie's leading character, Katniss Everdeen. Many have not only gushed over Lawrence's portrayal of the 16 year-old Katniss, but they have also labeled her as a new breed of female action heroes and a feminist icon that has not been seen on television or in the movies for years. I do not know if I agree with the latter assessment, but I cannot deny that Lawrence did a superb job in portraying an adolescent girl who is not only strong-willed and intelligent, but also very complex. Another performance that took me by surprise came from Josh Hutcherson, who portrayed Katniss' fellow combatant from District 12, Peeta Mellark. Hutcherson's Peeta has such a mild-mannered persona, I had assumed that the character would not last very long in the competition . . . or would at least proved to be a weak character that would eventually turn on Katniss. Color me surprised. But Hutcherson's performance seemed so subtle and skillful that I was surprised to discover that his character had really grown on me by the end of the movie.
"THE HUNGER GAMES" was also lucky to possess solid performances from the supporting cast. Liam Hemsworth - brother of Chris - gave a nice performance as Katniss' childhood friend, Gale Hawthorne. Fortunately for Hemsworth, he will be given the opportunity to strut his stuff, when his role becomes bigger in the upcoming sequels. Woody Harrelson already managed to show what a first-rate actor he could be in his superb performance as the complex and alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy, a former District 12 winner of the Hunger Games, who is assigned to act as mentor for Katniss and Peeta. There was a good deal of controversy surrounding the casting of Amandla Stenberg as the Games' youngest participant, Rue. Certain fans took issue with her racial background. Pity. Because I was very impressed by her subtle, yet charming peformance as Katniss' competitor and ultimate friend. Elizabeth Banks gave a rather funny performance as Katniss and Peeta's uptight chaparone, Effie Trinket. Singer Lenny Kravitz (and father of Lawrence's "X-MEN" co-star and friend, Zoë Kravitz) was surprisingly first-rate as Katniss and Peeta's stylist, Cinna. It has been a while since I have seen Wes Bentley in a movie. And it was heartening to see that he had not lost his touch in his ability to portray very complex characters. He certainly gave a superb and complex performance as the 74th Hunger Games' Head Gamekeeper, Seneca Crane. Donald Sutherland was also superb as President Coriolanus Snow, the introverted, yet ruthless leader of the Capitol and all of Panem. The movie also boasted fine performances from Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Dayo Okeniyi, Isabelle Fuhrman and Alexander Ludwig.
What else can I say about "THE HUNGER GAMES"? It is one of the top-grossing movies in recent years or perhaps even of all time. Whether it deserves this honor or not, I cannot deny that it turned out to be a surprisingly well made movie, thanks to Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, the movie's production team and a superb cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. I had felt some anxiety when I first heard that Ross has not signed up to do the movie's sequel,"CATCHING FIRE". Pity. Fortunately, his successor ended up being an equally good director.