Film review: The Hunger Games (12A)

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Apparently fans of the Japanese movie Battle Royale have called, asking for their ball back

With Harry Potter And The Curse Of Excrucius Overplottio ended, and Twilight about to sink its teeth into its own finale, a vacancy has opened in teen fiction film just big enough for The Hunger Games.

Suzanne Collins’ bleak killathon novel offers teen wars, teen romance and a bit of teen spirit from Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the stubborn 16-year-old heroine from the backwoods who takes on murderous adolescents, scheming presidents and weaponised hornets.

She lives in District 12 of Panem, which is what remains of post-apocalyptic America. Each year there’s a national televised game, not unlike Big Brother. Except that instead of auditions, each district must send a boy and a girl, between 12 and 18. Instead of a house, the 24 are placed in a wilderness. Instead of tasks, they pick weapons. And instead of a public vote, kids slaughter each other until there’s one left standing.

The ritual bloodbath is both circus and punishment of the masses for rebelling against the government, and most of the fighters have to be conscripted by lottery. Katniss is a rare volunteer, stepping in to take the place of her more helpless sister. Katniss is not helpless; she’s a self-contained heroine who supports her widowed mother and sister by sneaking into forbidden woodland and hunting local critters such as deer and squirrel with her bow and arrow.

The first half is the stronger section, establishing Katniss’s prowess and a budding relationship with her hunting companion Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Before the Games begin, she and District 12’s male contestant Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked off to The Capitol, a sort of Emerald City crossed with Dubai. There they are coached in strategy by District 12’s only winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), dressed to impress by an image consultant (Lenny Kravitz in gold eyeliner) and interviewed by a TV host (Stanley Tucci) with a bouffant that would have Donald Trump whistling in admiration.

The casting is well within everyone’s comfort zone: when choosing a president, the film opts for Donald Sutherland, whose lidded eyes and mellifluous tones are so suggestive of treachery that the filmmakers might as well have cast a talking snake.

The second half is the pitched battle itself, comprising sadistic volunteers, shrewd kids like the youngest contestant Rue (Amandla Stenberg), and the soon-to-be-dead meat. Apparently fans of the Japanese movie Battle Royale have called, asking for their ball back, although The Hunger Games actually bears a closer resemblance to a small indie called Series 7, sharing a tough heroine, a star-crossed love match and some annoying shoogly camerawork.

Does it really matter that this is not an entirely new idea? Nope. It’s more dismaying that the three scriptwriters, including the book’s author Suzanne Collins, have machined a greatest hits package of the book without including the novel’s emotional resonance. I’m thinking particularly of Rue, whose bond with Katniss had real poignancy in the book. The film just leaves non-readers wondering why a fleeting character is given her own anthem. The film’s 12A certificate also means the kills are quick, disorientating and allusive, so the end result is, in every sense, bloodless. «

Rating: ***

On general release