Blu-Review: The Hunger Games

Directed By Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland

In a post-apocalyptic future, Panem is the ruling nation, built on the ruins of North America and split into twelve districts of varying economic backgrounds, from the poverty of District 12 to the comfortable wealth of District 1. All of Panem is ruled over by the Capitol – a totalitarian government hub where citizens live lives of decadence while the rest of the nation starves and slaves away to provide for the rich. As a reminder of the Capitol’s power and to keep the impoverished masses from rising up against their rulers, every year, two children from each district – a boy and a girl aged 12-18 – are chosen by lottery and forced to compete against each other as ‘Tributes’ in a televised fight to the death until one survivor remains.

When her 12-year-old sister Primrose is selected, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers instead, saving her sibling from certain death. Along with the boy Tribute from her district, baker’s son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), she’s soon dropped in a deadly woodland arena and pitted against other teens willing to kill to survive and desperate to win the game at all costs. But having grown up in poverty, forced to hunt in the woods with bow and arrow to provide for her mother and sister every day, Katniss’ hunting and tracking skills will become her greatest asset in a nightmarish fight for survival.

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The ‘children forced to kill each other off in game of death by government’ premise brings inevitable comparisons to Battle Royale. But while Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins’ claims that she’d never seen or heard of the cult Japanese masterpiece book/manga/movie are highly dubious, let’s not forget that Battle Royale itself took heavy inspiration from books and movies like The Most Dangerous Game, The Running Man, The Long Walk and Lord of the Flies. The Hunger Games certainly owes a lot to other sources, but it crafts itself an interesting, well-developed world and as a movie marketed primarily at teens (but just as worthwhile for adults), it’s an intelligent, thrilling and brutal counterpoint to the dreary, soulless Twilight series.

Pleasantville director Gary Ross does a commendably fantastic job at adapting the book to screen and bringing the world of Panem to life, and while the movie loses out on a little of the political subtleties, it also downplays the sillier aspects of the novel (like the more outlandish genetically modified “muttations” – animals created by the Capitol and thrown in to spice up the games) and the Twilight-esque love triangle between Katniss, Gale and broody boy back home Gale is much less intrusive.

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Considering Katniss’ background – a resilient young survivalist with hunting skills living in a poverty-stricken woodland town, caring for a shell-shocked mother and a young sibling – Jennifer Lawrence is a perfect fit since her Oscar-nominated turn in the fantastic Winter’s Bone was practically a dry run for the character. Unsurprising, she’s terrific, and largely eliminates the need for the book’s first-person narrative purely by delivering such an expressive, nuanced emotional performance – just a single look from her says more than mouthfuls of wordy exposition could.

Katniss is a great character, too; brave, independent, intelligent, resourceful and a crack shot with a bow, she’s both beautiful and compassionate and a strong-willed badass. Teens who’ve spent the past few years misguidedly embracing the insipid, passive Bella Swan as a role model now have an actual, substantial heroine worth looking up to and rooting for, and Katniss Everdeen quickly earns a spot alongside Ellen Ripley in the iconic female film protagonist hall of fame.

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Josh Hutcherson (Detention) is excellent, too, juggling natural charisma and charm when playing up to audiences on the pre-Games press circuit and a rattled vulnerability when the horror starts. The casting department does a great job with the rest of the cast, with Woody Harrelson stealing every scene as Katniss and Peeta’s perpetually drunk mentor Haymitch Abernathy, whose booziness masks a venomous contempt for the Capitol. Heck, even the romance in the movie is made more interesting and ambiguous than the usual obligatory Twilight-ish love triangle thanks to it being largely a tactic for Katniss and Peeta to garner audience sympathy and sponsor backing.

The action-free first half is slow paced, but never feels it, as Ross establishes characters and the visually bizarre and opulent world of The Capitol incredibly well. The opening hour sows an effective atmosphere of doom and dread right from The Reaping, where the kids are picked out for death (filmed, like much of the movie, with handheld cameras, providing a more documentary-style, visceral sense of tension) through the preparation stages where the kids are groomed by stylists and hastily trained to fight by exploitative Capitol-dwellers who view the whole thing with the cold, ratings-driven mercenary spirit of TV execs. Ross does a great job at weaving in an undercurrent of social and political satire and the culture clash of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ which, in the age of the Occupy Movement, has never been more relevant.

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With a teen-friendly rating, The Hunger Games is the opposite end of the spectrum from the over-the-top balletic shootouts and geysers of blood that Battle Royale bathed in, but director Gary Ross still ekes every ounce of unsettling brutality from the concept, proving that what we don’t see is often more effective than what’s poured all over the screen. When the Games kick off with all the Tributes in one place, the violence that ensues might be light on blood, but Ross frames it so the panicked frenzy of savage violence has startling impact. One particular death later on, which amounts to a girl overheard pleading for her life off in the woods, a blood-curdling scream and then eerie silence, seconds before a deafening cannon echoes across the sky to signal a tribute has been killed is all the more chilling and effective for its off-screen simplicity.

If The Hunger Games slips up at all, it’s in killing off the majority of the tributes almost instantly, leaving little room for character outside the leads and not as much avenue for exploring the moral quandaries of the concept. As in the book, Ross quickly whittles the ranks, leaving Katniss and Peeta pretty much just up against the ‘Career Tributes’ – kids from the more wealthy Districts 1 & 2 who’ve been groomed and trained all their lives to compete in the games and moulded into skilled, hardened killers. Alexander Ludwig does a fine job with the character of Cato, making him a chilling, vicious and imposing adversary, and the same’s true of Isabelle Fuhrman as the venomous Clove, but they’re clear-cut villains out to kill without compassion or remorse.

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It’s a shame the other Tributes aren’t really fleshed out at all – wily redhead Foxface is a smart, endearing character in her short screentime and Rue makes a likeable little sister surrogate for Katniss in the game, but it’s a shame more time isn’t devoted to learning more about the other Tributes pre-games, or have more of them stick around longer to add some ambiguity between noble pacifism and sociopathic, murderous glee.

Taut, thrilling and often chilling, The Hunger Games is one of the best book-to-film adaptations in years and infinitely more deserving of it’s pop culture phenomenon status than the drudgery of Twilight. It might be marketed at teens, but an intelligent script, great performances and impressive filmmaking wring the best out of the Battle Royale-esque concept, making it a fantastic movie for adults, too.

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The Blu-ray looks and sounds stunning (and the shaky camerawork that rendered the final fight with Cato slightly incoherent on the big screen plays out much better on the small screen) and comes with a whole extra Blu-ray disc full of surprisingly substantial features that fans will be incredibly pleased with:

  • The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games (HD, 2 hrs, 2 mins)
  • Clocking in at a hair over 2 hours, this is a ridiculously comprehensive and entertaining documentary that covers everything from adapting the book to screenplay form, casting, costume design, scouting locations, stunt training, CGI work and sound design, right through to the film’s release and reception. Ross is open, talkative and insightful, expanding on things like why he chose handheld shakey-cam for the film, and the entire cast & crew offer fun anecdotes too. The only downside is there’s no input or involvement from Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins.

  • Game Maker: Suzanne Collins & The Hunger Games Phenomenon (HD, 14 mins, 5 secs)
  • David Levithan from Scholastic Publishing heads up a brief feature talking about the book’s origins, release, its ensuing popularity and being optioned for a movie adaptation. There’s interview tidbits from critics, fans, school teachers and the film’s cast and crew who delve into the book’s political subtext. It’s a surprisingly meaty feature but, again, the absence of Collins herself is noticeable and unfortunate.

  • Letters from the Rose Garden (HD, 9 mins, 8 secs)
  • A feature centred around Donald Sutherland and his villainous character President Snow. Sutherland chats about being drawn to the book and film’s political undercurrents and anti-war message, before giving a reading of a letter he sent to Director Gary Ross expounding on Snow’s background, motivations and real-world political parallels. You’d expect an actor of Sutherland’s stature and experience would just show up on set with the minimum of involvement and nail the role in their sleep, so it’s interesting to see him still get so invested in and impassioned about the role.

  • Controlling the Games (HD, 5 mins, 50 secs)
  • Ross talks about introducing and building the Truman Show-style studio control room as a way to convey information about the games that the book handled through first-person narration.

  • A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell (HD, 14 mins, 31 secs)
  • Film critic Elvis Mitchell interviews Ross about adapting and filming the movie.

  • Preparing for the Games: A Director’s Process (HD, 3 mins)
  • Ross talks about translating the script into a shot list to better visualise the movie, with a side-by-side comparison between the finished fireball scene from the movie, the storyboards and the shooting script.

  • Propaganda Film (HD, 3 mins, 24 secs)
  • The short film screened at the reaping in the movie shown in full.

  • Marketing Gallery
  • This slight feature merely offers up two photo galleries – one of the movie’s American posters (no interesting alternate, unused or international posters, sadly) and one of production stills (there’s no trailers to be found on the UK disc, unfortunately).

The Film:

The Blu-ray:

The Hunger Games is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from