It seems that everyone who stayed away from John Carter (of Mars!!) were really just saving themselves for The Hunger Games, the latest Hollywood franchise launcher, taken from a popular book series, aimed squarely that lucrative teenage market. This probably sounds a little snide, but its hard not to be skeptical. After the success of first Harry Potter, then Twilight, the last few years has seen a barrage of attempts to cash in on Young Adult fiction boom and the devoted followings they inspire. Its not new behavior, but it seems to be being refined into a fine art, and in many ways the quality of the finished product is almost an after thought compared to the tie-ins, marketing drive and steady drip, drip of images of the readers heroes and heroines brought to life.
I've not read The Hunger Games - in fact, I know very little about it other than the basic premise of kids being made to fight each other to the death - so I can't comment on the fidelity of the adaptation. I suspect its pretty close though; there is the occasional lingering shot on characters largely irrelevant to this story but I suspect become so in the later books, and the odd moment when the pacing or dialogue goes awry in what I think is moments that reference key literary scenes that don't quite have the same weight on screen. But that said mostly I'm free to judge it as a film, and it's with some relief that it turns out to be pretty good indeed.
It helps that this is properly challenging material, unflinchingly portrayed. Here in the UK it's got a 12A certificate, but it's a "hard" 12A with concessions made in the sense of not of a blood, for instance, but the combat scenes are still brutal and unpleasant, and characters deaths are jolting, meaningful moments. This is not one for my 9-year-old, for instance, for all he's getting used to seeing 12A superhero movies as something he can expect to watch. At the core of this challenge though is the main character; the damaged, emotionally locked down Katniss, a far cry from the everyman (everygirl?) protagonist I've come to expect in this sort of material.
The film makes it clear that Katniss has had a tough upbringing; dead father, shocked and distant mother, she's self-reliant, tough (and in many ways the perfect Tribute) but hard to like. It makes her a very grown-up lead, the sort of figure you'd see in a "proper grown up" film with compelling yet hard to like characters, and as a grown up that sort of complexity really helps the viewing experience. The film also cleverly humanises her by the company she keeps, especially Peeta and Rue, both of which play the role of more open, likeable companion at different points in the film. Peeta especially, with his easy-going nature and casual acceptance of his own likely fate transferred to a desire to see it mean something if he can help someone else win, gives the film a heart that Katniss simply can't and the story serves both characters very well.
All in all, The Hunger Games manages to be enormously entertaining but also a film about stuff; a smart and well crafted movie that is aimed squarely at the YA market but without some of the perceived baggage (I say perceived, as I'm under no illusions as to how smart YA can be, which is "very") that can come with it. Certainly the screening we were in had a vastly diverse demographic that is probably the key to the films massive success.
And I want to read the books now....