Set in a post-apocalyptic world in which the population is split into 12 separate districts, The Hunger Games features a televised fight to the death, created for representatives from each district to bring honour to their people. The catch: competitors must be aged between 12 and 18.
Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is the 16-year-old protagonist who has volunteered to represent district 12 – the poorest district – to spare her younger sister, selected in the capricious sweepstake. A fellow competitor is Peeta Melark, played by Josh Hutcherson, and the two are taken by bullet train to the capital city for the games to begin.
In the first hour of the film competitors are adorned in eccentric outfits ranging from the garish to the grotesque, as onlookers whirl themselves into a blood lust fuelled frenzy waiting for the action to start.
Reminiscent of Tim Burton's work at its finest, the bright colours and extravagant set design create a fitting backdrop to a world which clearly has its priorities badly skewed. That said, director Gary Ross clearly makes a poignant comparison with the kind of crowd fervour created with the reality television shows of the 21st Century.
Where The Hunger Games runs into difficulty is in deciding how best to deal with the essential subject matter: namely the killing of children for sport. Given that the film is aimed at the post-Twilight mid-teen market, the use of gore and bloody violence was never going to wash.
Subsequently, ways are created to minimize the distress of the killings once the games begin. These include screams and cries heard off-screen followed by the soft flump of bodies hitting the ground, and the altogether less gruesome spectacle of death by poison berry.
When combat deaths are shown as a matter of necessity, the obligatory Hollywood last gasps of breath are invariably included. It feels like a cop-out, but it’s a forgivable one given the obvious quandary the filmmakers found themselves in with regards to satisfying a key demographic.
Despite the odd mawkish moment, The Hunger Games is engaging. Some critics have argued the film borrows too heavily from William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, but there’s enough in the dystopian backdrop for the film to have its own strong identity.
Both Lawrence and Hutcherson, while clearly several years older than their characters, put in good performances. The star, however, is Stanley Tucci in his role as television host of the games. His crooked smile and deviant manner is so brilliantly believable, the inherent wickedness of the show’s premise seems momentarily forgotten.
In many ways that’s the strength of the film. It lures and captivates the viewer with prospect of greatness. Sadly, at the crucial junctures, it falls short.