Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross
Genre: sci-fi thriller
Rating: **** (4 of out 5)

Let’s get the obvious out of the way.

Suzanne Collin’s young adult novel The Hunger Games, on which the eponymous movie is based, is largely derivative. The premise is almost identical to the 1999 novel Battle Royale by Japanese author Koushun Takami (高見広春), even though Collins has repeatedly denied allegations of plagiarism. In her defense, the idea of a dystopic future where killing games are used to suppress or distract rebellion is nothing now. Takami himself acknowledged borrowing from Stephen King’s bestsellers The Running Man and The Long Walk, which in turn borrowed from classics like 1984, The Lord of the Flies and Greek mythology. The truth is that every novel is in some way derivative and novelists routinely borrow from each other – even Shakespeare ripped off Holinshed's Chronicles when he wrote Macbeth. As long as the borrowing is done in good taste and with imagination, we should just let it slide. In The Hunger Games, Collins refashions Takami’s idea by combining Shirley Jackson’s famous short story The Lottery and adding her own satirical treatment of the reality TV culture in America. And voila, a hit is born!

The Hunger Games by Gary Ross

The Hunger Games is also riddled with plot holes. The story is set in the post-apocalyptical nation Panem, made up of aristocrats who live in the wealthy Capitol and the masses languishing in 12 poor districts. Each district holds an annual lottery to pick a boy and a girl known as “tributes” to take part in a televised game to fight to the death. Here are some of my questions. If the Hunger Games are designed to instill both fear and hope in the masses, then why is it that only children are selected to participate? Wouldn’t small children (like 12-year-old Rue) be at such an inherent disadvantage compared to the much older, post-puberty tributes that the outcome becomes somewhat predictable and loses its excitement? And if tributes like our heroine Katniss Everdeen can volunteer to replace the actual lottery winner (in this case, Katniss’s baby sister Primose), what prevents every district from training a small elite army of super-warriors and sending them to the games as “volunteers” to ensure victory? But to be fair, even the greatest novels have holes, and sci-fi as a genre is especially susceptible to them. So long as the overall story hangs together, we should over-look instead of over-think, or else we would never enjoy big-idea fiction like The Brave New World and War of the Worlds.

"Tributes" from each of the 12 districts, promoted
the same way as contestants on American Idol

With the two frequently raised points about the novel out of the way, now let’s talk about the movie. Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) puts an end to his decade-long dry spell in Tinsel Town by bringing a successful teenage novel to the big screen, and he does so with the help of a brilliant cast. Stanley Tucci (Julie & Julia, The Devil Wears Prada) plays a convincing game show host by channeling American Idol's Ryan Seacrest and replicating his "Ken Doll" stage persona. Woody Harrelson’s drunken mentor character is the comeback role the volatile actor has been waiting for since Natural Born Killers. Donald Sutherland adds weight and credibility to the film by playing President Snow, Panem’s villain-in-chief. Last but not least, Jennifer Lawrence brings to life the novel's strong heroine who combines bravery, sensitivity, wit and tenderness. Even prior to The Hunger Games, the 22-year-old actress has shown remarkable range by playing an action hero in X-Men: First Class and a hardened teenager in Winter’s Bone. The latter role earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress this year, making her the second younger person (after Anna Paquin) to be nominated for that award. No doubt The Hunger Games has already propelled Lawrence from a rising starlet to an international pop idol.

The girl with the whole package

Despite the many dissenting opinions (one of my friends declared it “the worst movie ever”), I find The Hunger Games fast-moving, nail-biting and visually compelling. It is well executed and immensely entertaining. Whether you have already read the novel, plan on reading the novel or have no intention to do so, you should still give the movie a shot because it and the book each stands on its own. And if you decide to head to the cinema, like the tens of millions who did on the opening weekend, resist the temptation to over-analyze the story and just enjoy the show for what it is: Hollywood entertainment. And as part of the Hollywood tradition, the same ensemble is scheduled to return to the big screen in the sequel Catching Fire by Christmas 2013. It will give the Twilight finale a run for its money.


  1. I've much expectation after reading your article, much appreciate. I think you have given lots of substances to fill the holes.


  2. I think I have been "over/think" during the movie, but it didn't affect much the excitement that the plots pulled together.


  3. I am surprised how many of my friends actually hated the movie...


  4. Not brutal enough as i have expected and turns cheesy by the end. a bit disappointed.


  5. Yeah, they tune down the whole story to fit the cliche Hollywood formula , make it suitable for all people.

    The movie will be perfect if equipped with the high concepts Jason has mentioned, plus our natural understanding of 'brutal' because of our expertise in Asian historical , philosophical influences , thus to shows how dead end human civilization is.

    Takeshi Kitano(北野武)Fukasaku Kinji(深作欣二)'s Battle Royale (大逃殺) is low budget and raw enough to enhance the 'brutality' but inter-cut with no sound captions like " Do you get it ?" " Do you still not understand ?" just struck the inner chord of everyone. The background which was set on an isolated island that trapped all people was good enough to explain not just the kids were victims but everyone, which solve the question Jason has raised.


  6. Hello Jason,

    Yes you are right. Many people dislike the movie and none of my friends want to see the movie, i.e no one keeps me company... I may wait for the dvd instead...


  7. Jason,

    Watched the movie finally. Just puzzle why friends of your disliked it. A friend of mine went with me and she found it incredibly good. For me, it's not just simply a kind of hollywood entertainment, I thought there were lots of metaphors out there i.e. self sacrifice, the power of love, government manipulation, the struggle of "be yourself or not to be" when comes to life and death. Especially the scene of the government repression on the rebellion of "District 11", reminds me the scene of "六四". Although few folks may consider it not brutal enough and disappointed with such a happy ending, but that's the way I liked it. Light-hearted with lots of messages for reflection !

    Besides, I lke the casting of Katniss very much, 通常於危難中,出現在銀幕上,都會是英雄救美的情境,意外地今次有所不同,Katniss 太棒了!

    Thanks for the review and Happy Easter !


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