The Hunger Games ★★★½

The latest in the factory line of bestselling franchise novels to be adapted for the big screen, The Hunger Games might not have the same extensive reach as Harry Potter or Twilight but it is inevitably subject to the same judgement: does it work as a film? Set in a non-specific futuristic world in which the population is sharply divided between the filthy rich in the central city and the suppressed poor in the outlying regions, the film tries hard to play up the cruel differences between them. Shooting District 12 where the story opens in cold monotonous greys, director Gary Ross creates a sharp contrast with the garish colours on display later on when even the friendliest characters sport gold eyeliner or blue hair, but can only hint at the dark explanations for the two extremes. More to the point though this extended build up only serves to prolong the beginning of the titular Games themselves, a Battle Royale style combat arena in which twenty-four teenagers or tributes must fight to the death (because Donald Sutherland says so) that forms the basis of the story. To start with at least, it’s worth the wait. The film is anchored by a tremendous performance for Jennifer Lawrence as the heroine Katniss Everdene, a child who’s been forced to find a well of internal strength and grow up too quickly, and it is largely thanks to her and not Ross that the action is so excruciatingly tense when it finally arrives. Lawrence undercuts Katniss’ no nonsense attitude with a streak of sad desperation that makes the character a charismatic figure that anyone would instinctively root for and so the scenes of her being threatened feel almost terrifying to watch. However the Games take up two thirds of a very long film and despite having Lawrence on side Ross is not a good enough director to maintain this tension. This being a story with a large teenage fan base it makes sense to cut around the deaths but Ross takes this as a cue to keep the camera moving so much that for the most part its hard to keep a grip on anyone besides Katniss. This isn’t helped by the fact that the other tributes have paper thin characterisations (if any at all) and so apart from one emotional salute over a fallen ally the inevitable deaths don’t really have any impact. Then as the film enters the final phase the dreaded spectre of romance lurks its flowery head, driving the plot towards the finale and setting up a possible triangle for the second film (the story’s appeal for Twilight fans suddenly becomes clear), a move that is sweetly played by Lawrence and co-star Josh Hutcherson but lessens the tension and makes the film less engaging as a whole. A final twist ending feels a little abrupt after so long but is at least handled with the irony it’s due, wrapping up a film that is very interesting but not as great as its reputation might suggest.