When the 'Harry Potter' series came to an end in 2011, the question was asked: what would take its place? For a decade it had connected with young audiences, using fantasy to explore the concerns of growing into adulthood, but it had left a void to be filled. At first it seemed as if supernatural romances would be the successor, particularly the 'Twilight' series, but none of these emerging franchises had the staying power or the storytelling for the job. And then in 2012, a successor finally emerged, but one that replaced magic and fantasy with science fiction and dystopian speculation. It was expected that ‘The Hunger Games’ would be a hit, but I doubt anyone expected it would become the cultural phenomenon it has.
This month, the fourth and final film in the series based on Suzanne Collins’ books will be released, a year after leaving us on a precarious cliffhanger. In a year filled with high-profile blockbusters, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2’ is amongst the most anticipated - and for good reason. It’s no secret that we’re caught in an almost never-ending tide of franchises and cinematic universes, but this series in particular has distinguished itself from its peers by being enormously successful, critically acclaimed and cinematically impressive.
I must admit, my expectations going into the first film weren’t particularly high. Films for young adults had pretty much disappeared into an abyss, and the central concept (a bunch of teenagers in an arena killing one another as entertainment) wasn’t exactly original. What took me by great surprise though was that this wasn’t a silly romance with watered-down ideas playing to the lowest common denominator, but a well-conceived and thought-provoking dystopian nightmare that placed a young, intelligent woman at its centre. It was intense, wildly entertaining and shockingly uncompromising. When the Games began with an eerie silence, a soundless and breathless sequence of kids killing kids with surprising violence, I realised what a rare beast ‘The Hunger Games’ was - so many of its kin present a cool and disturbing idea and never follow through with it, but this one wasn’t taking the easy road. It wasn’t here to be enjoyed and discarded. It had every intention of sticking around.
It’s not a surprise that ideas of a totalitarian society built to suppress freedom of expression and liberty connect so much with teenagers. They’re in the process of defining themselves, not just against their peers but against society as a backdrop. These fantasy worlds are filled with adult figures both wise and terrible, expectations that seem insurmountable and personal relationships in a constant state of flux. This kind of young adult fiction wasn’t invented by Collins though, so what about this series seems to hit so close to home? I haven’t read the books so I can’t speak for them, but for someone following this epic on film, the answer seems crystal clear: it’s all down to Katniss.
Female heroes are few and far between as it is, but Katniss Everdeen is a sort we see very rarely. She’s highly intelligent, incredibly strong and frighteningly determined, but most of all she isn’t defined in the slightest by the men around her. She derives strength from herself and her situation, and rebels against the complications that come from her romantic possibilities with childhood friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and fellow Hunger Games Tribune Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Though these relationships are important to her (and certainly become more complex and complicated as the series progresses), they don’t define her in the way that the romance in ‘Twilight’ defines insipid Bella. It doesn’t even feel appropriate to call Katniss a warrior, because that suggests she is impenetrable. It would be better to call her a survivor, one who faces impossible odds (physically, mentally and emotionally) and has no choice but to overcome them or be annihilated by them.
All of these attributes wouldn’t matter a bit if it weren’t for the casting of Jennifer Lawrence. She’s received mountains of praise for her film work these past few years, but I think it’s in these films that she shows just what a remarkable actor she is. Her work is endlessly detailed and inventive, betraying a wisdom both in Katniss and herself way beyond their years. She also gives us a hero both natural and unnatural, expertly laying out the cracks and fears in Katniss as each horrific challenge is played in her way. As the series progresses and Katniss’ personal and emotional losses escalate, Lawrence charts her post-traumatic stress with great ease and almost frightening honesty. When I showed the first film to a friend a few days ago, they turned to me at one point and said, "She’s very good, isn’t she?" There are many things worthy of praise in this series, but there’s no question its greatest asset is its perfectly cast lead.
'The Hunger Games' series is amongst the most daring franchises around in terms of filmmaking.
What comes as the most unexpected surprise though - and the reason I decided to stick with the films rather than read the books - is that as a whole the series is wonderfully cinematic. Other similar franchises seem to be ticking boxes, fulfilling what is necessary without taking any serious stylistic risks. Even the 'Harry Potter' series, the monster of all young adult adaptations, is wildly inconsistent between chapters, no unifying style or rhythm being established. 'The Hunger Games' series is amongst the most daring franchises around in terms of filmmaking. Director Gary Ross established a furious, hand-held vision in the first film, something that felt immediate and dangerous. The tone was carefully sombre and the adaptation accepted that this was a different medium, not only with different requirements but full of different possibilities. The start of the Games themselves is still the highlight of the series. From there, director Francis Lawrence added his own very accomplished visual style and opened the scope of the films. And thanks to this, they’ve attracted a remarkable ensemble cast that includes Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore. None of them would be there unless the work was worth doing and the series was worth committing to. Look at any interview on the superb Blu-ray releases of the films and you’ll see them all immensely proud of their work and the work of their peers on the film. If anything, that’s what I take away the most from the series - that a blockbuster can still satisfy its audience with thrills and excitement without sacrificing its craft.
In the wake of its success, countless imitators appeared in its place, and some surprisingly good ones. Unlike the tepid fantasies that followed 'Harry Potter' and ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and the bland supernatural romances after ‘Twilight’, these young adult dystopias have taken a leaf out of Ross and Lawrence’s books and spend time crafting these films carefully rather than tossing them onto the screen as quickly as possible. ‘Divergent’, ‘The Gift’ and ‘The Maze Runner’ are all fine additions to the genre. In the end though, none of them pack the emotional punch of 'The Hunger Games'.
It’s not a perfect series by any means - some of the dialogue is a bit on-the-nose and the names are ridiculous (who would ever have expected Hoffman to play a character called Plutarch Heavensbee), but while so many tentpole films disappear into memory, 'The Hunger Games' stays. It resonates and affects, it moves and horrifies, it thrills and inspires. The team behind it have shown Collins’ material tremendous respect but allowed it to adapt and expand in the cinematic medium. And at its centre is one of the most important female characters we’ve seen on the big screen in a long time. Katniss Everdeen might be a reluctant hero thrown into a nightmare by an act of courage to save her sister, but for countless young women watching or reading her, she can only be an inspiration.
Because I haven’t read the books, I have no idea what’s around the corner. All I’ve been told by those who have read it is that the end will be enormous, shocking and intense. That doesn’t surprise me at all. When a series sets up stakes as high as 'The Hunger Games' has, a thunderous climax is the only way it can possibly end.
I cannot wait to see it.