The Hunger Games

A franchise is born.


Anyone who has read the 2008 bestseller on which it's based will encounter no surprises in The Hunger Games. Once again we're in the post-apocalyptic country of Panem—formerly North America before an unspecified disaster wiped out that civilization some years earlier. Panem is divided into 12 heavily oppressed Districts ruled with a steel fist by the merciless President Snow (Donald Sutherland, little-seen) in the faraway Capitol. There was once a thirteenth District, but it grew rebellious and was destroyed. Cowed by that intimidating example, the remaining populace lives in conditions of soul-draining deprivation, meekly acquiescent. But the Capitol's vengeance is ongoing: It has instituted an annual event called the Hunger Games, for which "Tributes"—one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18—are selected from each District to gather in an arena and engage in armed combat until all but one have been killed.

If fans of the novel will already know all of this (and fans of the Japanese film Battle Royale will recognize familiar ground), the same might have been said of such earlier book-to-screen adaptations as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films. But in those cases, the filmmakers freshened the well-known tales with groundbreakingly imaginative digital effects, and surrounded the little-known young leads with estimable veterans (Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Christopher Lee). In this movie, CGI is comparatively minimal, and some of the effects—an onslaught of fireballs, the inevitable rampaging beasties—are surprisingly cheesy; and while the picture is vitally enlivened by Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson in subsidiary roles, the focus is on a larger group of young actors who in some cases could be interchangeable.

It was thus a wise choice by director Gary Ross to cast Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role of Katniss Everdeen, the fearless warrior girl, who's in virtually every scene. As she has demonstrated in such previous films as Winter's Bone and Like Crazy, Lawrence is an actor of subtle command, a gray-eyed beauty who can project star presence simply by being present. The Hunger Games would have been a lusterless production without her.

Katniss lives in District 12, in what was once Appalachia, with her widowed mother (Paula Malcomson) and little sister, Prim (Willow Shields). It's a place of picturesque misery—grimy men trudging off to the coal mines, hard-bitten women suffering in their dismal shifts and headscarves—that heavily suggests the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Katniss supplements her family's meager diet by slipping through the District's imprisoning fence to hunt game with her bow and arrows in the company of a local boy named Gale (Liam Hemsworth). When her sister Prim is selected by lottery for the latest Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place, and is transported with another village boy, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), to the Capitol to be coached for battle by an assigned mentor named Haymitch (Harrelson), a scrubby drunkard with little in the way of encouragement to offer. ("Embrace the probability of your imminent death," he tells them.)

The Capitol, as presented here, is a city of spectacular (or maybe just silly, you may think) decadence, its inhabitants wallowing in luxury and disporting themselves in outlandish clothing and makeup, both of which lean heavily toward pastels. On hand to attend to Katniss are a twittery contest factotum named Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and a sympathetic wardrobe specialist (Lenny Kravitz) whose job is to make Katniss and Peeta camera-ready. Because the Games are actually part of a never-ending reality-TV show hosted by the blindingly smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Tucci, having a ball in glittery suits and abundantly ruffled shirts, with blue hair pulled back into an imposing horsetail).

This year's arena turns out to be an expanse of woodlands and fields. The bloodshed begins the minute the 24 combatants are turned loose to battle over a cache of weapons and proceeds over succeeding days as they stalk one another through the countryside. Katniss is wary of Peeta—who we soon learn has long adored her—but she does form a brief alliance with a crafty little girl named Rue (Amandla Stenberg). And after finally laying hands on a bow and a quiver of arrows, she becomes determined to win this thing.

The story has obvious political overtones. It demonstrates the danger of unbounded government power, and conveys the inhuman horrors of a full-blown police state in its depiction of the slaughter of children (although in a way that's very tightly edited, so as not to endanger a PG-13 rating). There may be more running about in the woods than non-initiates will want to sit through for nearly two and a half hours; and I thought the bland Hutcherson should have been switched into the role of Gale, the boy back home, so that the more substantial Hemsworth could have taken his place and worked up some missing chemistry with Lawrence. Not that she needs much in the way of assistance.

The Hunger Games is an honorable beginning for a franchise (which is surely what it will become—author Suzanne Collins, who also worked on the script, has continued and concluded the story in two subsequent books). One hopes that the digital effects will be muscled up for the next outing, and that more colorful actors along the lines of Tucci and Harrelson will be brought onboard. But this is Jennifer Lawrence's show—she's an action girl that anyone might look forward to seeing back in action.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.

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  1. By now, I've learned that if Loder doesn't praise the shit out of it, it sucks but he's too nice to say so. This review has "meh" written all over it, which would comport with what I saw in the trailer.

    For this type of "fuck with the children" dystopia, House of Stairs would have been a much better source novel.

    1. "fuck with the children" dystopia

      Game of Thrones

      1. No, that's just "fuck the children" dystopia.

        1. Listen to Kurt Loder live on WMAL this hour, before he abandons ship.

    2. My biggest gripe with the flick is the PG-13 rating. Pardon spoilers, but when the dogs eat the dude at the end and various other folks die, they can't do much with it because of the PG-13 need for the tween crowd.

      Plus, the Capitol has a matte-painting feel. Not a real city but one of those contrived, shallow places they slap together for a Star Trek episode, or one of the fluke History Channel things about Atlantis or some shit - not a epic blockbusting feature.

      My verdict? Twilight with swords done like something you'd see on Sci-Fi. Yawn.

    3. Dunno, I think that "Running Man" (in either book or movie form) has a lock on the post-apocalyptic death game genre

      1. Or Stephen King's other Richard Bachman novel, The Long Walk, where a bunch of kids basically just walk and the last one still on his feet wins anything he wants, while the others are killed.

        Sad to see how far he's fallen...

  2. I don't understand your style of review. You don't say soon enough whether you liked it or not and why. If you said the stuff at the top of the article that gave your ratings, then you could warn people not to read further due to spoilers.

    Instead you always summarize everything in the movie like the plot and sometimes surprises and then buried within, you have some ratings of acting, etc.

    1. Sorry, this review contains spoilers.

  3. Boob bounce at 0:27 on trailer.

  4. All power to the Soviets


    Bruce Willis is actually dead. Tell all your friends!



  6. I don't think I could take Donald Sutherland seriously as a tyrant.

    1. Always with the negative waves, man, always with the negative waves.

  7. The problem here can be boiled down to two things:

    1) Casting

    2) Plot

    Casting was incredibly uninspired. The kids are mostly out of the Nickelodeon/Disney Channel circuit, and the adults almost all seem miscast for their roles. (Lenny Kravitz? Pass.)

    In the meantime, the plot was incredibly derivative -- and I don't mean the done-to-death comparison with Battle Royale, which I didn't see or intend to see. The whole "post-apocalyptic games for the masses" theme is done to death, and the novel's plot did not differ substantially from previous offerings in the genre.

    It might work in the same way that Avatar did -- emotional connection to the romance and the presence of a different-ish setting. It might also work as Twilight did -- unwatchable dreck to anyone who didn't read the books. In either case, I doubt these films will outlast the craze generated by the novels.

    1. and I don't mean the done-to-death comparison with Battle Royale, which I didn't see or intend to see

      Why not? It's excellent. And it has Takeshi Kitano in it.

      1. Media that folks NERDRAGE about on the internet tends to disappoint me.

        Still, I've read your comments and we seem to have pretty similar tastes in movies (except in the horror genre), so I might give it a shot based on your comment.

        1. Where do we differ in horror movies?

          1. You like them; I don't.

            1. Why not? What have you tried? If it's just shit like Troll 3, of course you don't like it. Have you tried any Argento? Romero? The original Wicker Man? Any splatstick like Army of Darkness or Braindead?

              1. Of the ones I remember, Del Toro (whose non-horror I mostly enjoy), Romero and Peter Jackson (self-explanatory) come to mind as well-crafted films in the genre. I can see the objective merits and quality of the films; it just doesn't groove me as a genre.

                1. Err... as directors I've watched who've made well-crafted films that I've watched. Derp.

                  1. it just doesn't groove me as a genre

                    That's too bad; as a genre it has a lot to offer. I just recently went on a rewatch jag of late 70s and 80s Stephen King adaptation movies, and it was great fun. Pet Semetary, Cujo, Firestarter, Christine, Carrie, The Shining, Dead Zone. Great stuff.

                    1. It was later than the 80's, but The Langoliers is good junky King TV.

        2. The difference within the death-games/childhood dystopia genre versus The Hunger Games is that Battle Royale draws on the director's own experiences in World War II. His class was drafted by the government, and he worked at a munitions factory. He recalls hiding under the corpses of his friends to escape artillery fire and then having to help dispose of their corpses. It's visceral, and there's little of the glorification of honor and violence you see in Hollywood war porn.

          This at first glances feels like the Twilight version of that. No real experience to draw on, Disneypop teens, PG-13 constraints, etc.

    2. Avatar worked?

  8. OK, all these Battle Royale comparisons made me curious. I think I'll put it on my Netflix queue...

    ...And I guess I'm not alone, because they're telling me "Long wait." Oh well.

    1. This movie is to Battle Royale as Twilight is to Let the Right One In

      1. More like Battle Royale with less character development and more Disney teens.

        1. There is character development in Battle Royale?


          Oh I see what you did there.

    2. OK, all these Battle Royale comparisons made me curious. I think I'll put it on my Netflix queue...

      Don't! Battle Royal is horrible.

      1. Agreed. I made the mistake of reading the book, and can cite that as the exact moment that I learned it is wise to recognize what you'd rather not know, and defeat your curiosity.

  9. Is the Romney campaign like an Etch A Sketch?

  10. Sounds like "Running Man" with kids. Pass.

  11. I noticed Kurt Loder on Redeye; he's done something -dyed his hair?

    1. You noticed a man physically?!?!?!


      A Women's society has no art!!!

      Your sexuality determines your politics!!!

      People read my blog I have graphs!!!!

  12. This whole genre's been shit since Machine Gun Joe Viterbo got ran off the road by Frankenstein.

  13. What would be cool you know?
    A Grizzly Man sequel.

  14. I've read all three books. As sci-fi goes, I found them fairly light weight.

    On the other hand, I still enjoyed reading the books and I plan to see the movie.

  15. I consider the Hunger Games to be the most depraved book I have encountered in awhile. The essence of the book is children killing children in gruesome ways with minimal backstory and little meaning. It is an age old plot but this time with children with the book intended for children. This is pretty shocking and vile but the book is intended for children which is unbelievable. I really can't understand the appeal of such a repulsive topic. At least in the lord of the flies treated such a topic with seriousness to explore human nature. This is just further debasing of ourselves for entertainment. I really hate this book.

    1. Guess you missed that whole antiwar theme.

    2. Wow, did you copy/pasta last night's O'Reilly transcript? I swear I channel flipped right over some scrunchy faced blonde woman squawking this almost verbatim.

    3. Don't read Battle Royale, Jim. From what I've heard of THG, it's BR-lite. I've never exposed myself to Hunger Games because I learned from my mistake.

  16. I thought this year's girl-with-a-bow-and-arrows were to be Merida in Brave.

    Is the moral of the story that projectile weapons are the great equalizers between the sexes?

  17. Can someone explain why the word "Hunger" is in the title?

    1. Because they're all secretly wanting to have sex with each other randomly. It's all right there. Don't you GET it?

      1. The Hunger Games porn version will be out soon enough....any bets at to what it will be titled?

        I'm going for "The Finger Games"

        1. It's sad that they can't make a porno Harry Potter in Canada, because the actors would still be depicting minors (17) even in the last movie. 🙁

          I think "The Lord of the Cockring"'s been done already, right?

          1. There are a few versions. The Lady of the Rings has Sylvia Saint jerking off Gandalf. that scene has been haunting me for years now...

        2. The Hump Her Games
          The Cummer Dames
          The Hung Jerk James
          Or something comparably stupid

          But I'll see it anyway if it has Kagney Lynn Karter.

          1. The Hump Her Games.....nice!

            Kagney Lynn Karter.....nice!

        1. Better graphics here, but the Star Trek porn version looks like it would actually be a pretty typical episode of its show.

    2. Because in the story's universe a lot of people are near-starving.

      Also, a sideways reference to panem et circenses

      1. So, it's not a food-eating competition, like the Coney Island hot-dog eating contest?

  18. I haven't seen the movie,but the first novel is one of the most disturbing books I've read in a very long time. Professionally I tend to work in 3rd world authoritarian shitholes. This book, more than any academic or historical work, clearly captures all of the little details associated with living in one of these places. The threats, implied and over, the creaping paranoia, the beaten down population, etc. A very good read by an author who clearly did her homework, that vew will appreciate.

  19. Really, Reason? You're going to make me play fucking Facebook games before reading the article? I thought you had more class than that.

  20. I haven't read the book, but my daughter has and is a huge, massive fan, as are several of her friends. We just took her to see the movie about an hour ago, for her 14th birthday. I have to admit, they sucked me in and was enraged pretty early on. There were several characters who I was itching to put a bullet in their faces - or at least a really good smashing-in with my fist.

    But yeah, I can see it's not really a top-level classic film. If you're one of the "young adult" readers who really loved the book, you're going to line up to see the movie and you're going to love it.

    A lot of the killings were very quick and off-screen, or only glimpsed - and quiet. A little too sanitized to really convey the horror of it, but of course they did that to keep the PG-13 rating and allow their target audience, who all have read the book, to get in.

  21. Was Christopher Lee in any of the potter films?

    1. Not as far as I can recall, although I don't really care enough to take the time to check.

  22. Not as far as I recall (although I don't care enough to take the time to check.)

  23. Play free 3D Games online on!

  24. "I thought the bland Hutcherson should have been switched into the role of Gale, the boy back home, so that the more substantial Hemsworth could have taken his place."

    Is Loder serious? Has he even read the book? The obvious chemistry is supposed to be between Katniss and Gale. The whole point of this part of the story is that there is very little or no chemistry between Katniss and Peeta. She cares about his welfare, but she is not in love with him. I thought the casting in the movie for the two young men was perfect. I couldn't have imagined them any better.

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