Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by:Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz
Released: March 22, 2012
Grade: B+

I should start with a disclaimer – please note that Matthew Toomey has not read the books.  It seems everyone else has (well, at least judging from Twitter) but alas, I haven’t been able to squeeze them into my hectic schedule.  Do not despair however.  I took a well-read fan with me to the Brisbane premiere to make sure that I covered both perspectives.  Funnily enough, we both wound up with the same conclusion.

Now that the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises have reached their conclusion, The Hunger Games is trying to fill the void and become “the next big thing” in the teen movie market.  It certainly has the potential to do so and I’m a big fan of the concept.

If you haven’t seen the trailer (which has been shown before every movie in the past 3 months), the story revolves around a futuristic world that consists of 12 districts and a controlling capital city.  Every year, the poor districts are ordered by the wealthy Capitol to choose one boy and one girl for the annual Hunger Games.

As you’ll see from the opening scenes, this is not a competition you want to be selected for.  The 24 teenagers chosen are placed inside a life-like arena and they must fight to the death.  Only one can be left standing at the end.  Every moment is televised and the public can watch and place bets from the comfort of their homes.  To further spice things up, generous sponsors and cunning game controllers have the power to influence the result by changing the conditions inside the arena.  It’s like a deadly version of The Truman Show.

The central character in The Hunger Games is a strong-willed 16-year-old named Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence).  The name of her younger sister was drawn from the dreaded glass bowl but Katniss has made the ultimate sacrifice and volunteered to take her place.  She will be joined by Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) as the two representatives from the coal mining District 12.

On arrival at the Capitol, the competitors go through a rigorous training and grooming program in preparation for the Games.  This isn’t because the organiser’s are nice.  Rather, it’s because they want to turn the games into a huge spectacle that captivates those in the Capitol and instils fear amongst those in the districts.  The competitors even appear on a talk show where they try to promote their skills and help lure sponsors.

The opening half of this film is the most interesting.  It wastes no time getting started and you’ll be quickly immersed into this strange world.  There are some terrific conversation-driven pieces that explain the purpose of the Hunger Games and the best strategy to be adopted by those competing.  There’s a particularly good scene where Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson sit on the window ledge and open up about their worries.

You’ll also be struck by the sets, make up and costume design.  Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) has worked closely with author Suzanne Collins to bring this story to life.  From the décor in the luxurious apartments to the little curls at the end of Wes Bentley’s beard, this is a film with a strong visual footprint.

As we all know, the problem with any book adaptation is trying to work out how to condense all the material into the running length of a feature film.  The approach adopted by screenwriting team in this instance seems to be an aggressive one – they’ve tried to cover as much as possible.  I’m not sure it works and it felt like we were rushing through several key scenes (particularly the ending) to squeeze it all in.

My other major qualm was with the downplaying of the violence.  You’ll see a quick shot of someone getting stabbed but the camera then pulls away as if not to confront the audience.  I realise this is unavoidable (to ensure an M rating in Australia) but I have to say it.  It lessens the film’s emotional impact and you don’t get a strong enough sense of the brutal nature of the competition (which I believe comes through in the novel).

It’s far from perfect but The Hunger Games is still a good film with a well chosen cast.  I’m very excited about the prospects of this series going forward.  A few subplots are deliberately left unresolved to generate interest in the next film.  For those who won’t be able to wait that long (such as myself), a trip to the bookstore will be necessary.