The new gladiators
This exciting adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s hit novel, the first in a trilogy, punches all the right buttons, writes Donald Clarke
HOLLYWOOD REALLY needs this poor wee film to deliver. With Harry Potter over and Twilight winding down – and John Carter exploding on impact – the dream factory is desperately searching for another durable franchise. There’s no pressure on the folk behind this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s young-adult bestseller. It’s just the very survival of the industry that’s at stake.
Well, Gary Ross, the solid talent behind Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, has done a bang-up job on the first episode of the projected trilogy. The novels certainly tread upon familiar ground. The series imagines a dystopian America where teenage citizens are made to fight to the death for the entertainment of television viewers. Such pastiches are as old as the game show itself. We think of The Running Man, Rollerball, Series 7: The Contenders and, most conspicuously, Battle Royale. But Ross and Collins have found new ingredients to spice up the ancient recipe.
The strong, unshowy Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen, resident of a rural mining town that, despite existing many decades in the future, seems to have slipped from a Dorothea Lange photograph. In a scene that offers creepy echoes of Shirley Jackson’s great story The Lottery, Katniss watches aghast as her young sister is randomly selected to represent the district in the titular gladiatorial combat. Katniss volunteers to take the child’s place and, accompanied by the baker’s son (the always likable Josh Hutcherson), is transported to the capital city for interviews, training and indoctrination.
The film-makers take a risk by delaying the characters’ propulsion into conflict for close to an hour. For the most part, the gamble pays off. All movie versions of the future look like the present or the past. This incarnation appears to take place in an anteroom of London’s Blitz Club during the early days of the New Romantic movement: frilly skirts; huge bows, teased pink hair. These preparatory skirmishes are adorably camp and, as well as sewing seeds that will germinate in later episodes, offer a nice contrast to the damp, rural grit that characterises the combat sequences.
Ross has had to work darn hard to retain that 12A certificate. Knives are brandished. Young people are slaughtered ruthlessly. Nonetheless, thanks to fast cutting and coy camera angles, The Hunger Games just about manages to remain within the family enclosure. Little blood is spilt, but seasoned action fiends will not feel themselves overly short-changed.
It is, however, Lawrence’s tasty performance that really sets the film apart. While her opponents in the leafy glade that constitutes the arena have the psychological depth of characters from Tekken, Lawrence makes something delightfully conflicted of Katniss: she is as hard as diamond, but guiltily enjoys being dolled up by the public relations wonks.
On this evidence, we will almost certainly be welcoming her back for another two episodes. Hollywood can breathe a little easier.
The game show from hell: Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flick