Retrospective: A look-back on The hunger games’ 10 year legacy

Last month marked the 10th anniversary of The Hunger Games gracing our cinema screens, and its impact on young adult novels and cinema as a whole is still being felt today.

Adapted from Suzanne Collins’ YA series of the same name, the film is set in a dystopian world in which society is divided into 13 districts. The titular ‘Hunger Games’ involves random individuals being plucked from each district and forced to fight to the death  in a controlled environment for the amusement of the upper class. When the introspective Katniss Everdeen ‘volunteer[s] as tribute’ to save her sister from entering the games, she must not only face her rival tributes, but also her romantic feelings for Peeta and whoever the other guy is (John? I’m gonna guess John. — Gale?! Ok, sure).

After the book series’ rise to immense popularity, the film rights were quickly nabbed by Lionsgate. Despite  the success they once saw with the Saw franchise, the dwindling returns that later entries in the series provided meant that the studio was on the lookout for a new property to guarantee them big bucks and secure their place among the other studio giants.

Directed by Gary Ross, the film featured a now iconic cast. The relatively fresh-faced Jennifer Lawrence was cast as the film’s lead, with famed child actor-turned-teen heartthrob Josh Huterson playing Peeta and Aussie Liam Hemsworth (the 2nd most forgettable Hemsworth brother) playing Gale. The younger cast was joined by veterans Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson playing the Capitol’s leader President Snow and Haymitch, the drunken mentor of the tributes, respectively.

Much like the book, The Hunger Games was a runaway hit, but was marred by criticisms upon its release – many of which hold up today. Ross’ direction was hammered  for his handling of action scenes and inability to keep the camera still for a moment. While ‘shaky cam’ was a popular trend sparked by the Jason Bourne franchise, too many directors began using it as a crutch for their shoddy fight choreography.

The CGI, as well, is horrendous, and it’s no wonder they keep the artificial dogs hidden in shadows for the climactic ending. Comparisons were also made to Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, but besides the basic premise of young adults battling to the death, there are very little similarities storywise. At the same time, it’s a very generic premise that goes as far back as The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, and can be seen in more recent media sensations like Squid Game.

Additionally, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was scrutinized for being too vacant and emotionless. Fans of the book series, however, were quick to point out its faithfulness to her book counterpart, who keeps many of her emotions buried within.

The double knock out of Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook in 2012 sparked a massive ‘JLaw’ hype train. Her seemingly relatable persona of a woman who is just like the average girlie – loves pizza, falls over on Oscar steps, etc. – and who wouldn’t adhere to the average expectations of stardom rocketed her into icon status, making her a regular fixture of Awards season for the following few years.

Hunger Games’ success also meant other studios wanted a piece of the lucrative dystopian YA novel pie. Franchises such as Divergent and The Maze Runner were soon greenlit, with whole series planned before a single film was shot.

Unlike Hunger Games, however,  both of these cash grabs were met with middling to negative reception. Divergent’s plans of a four-film series (the third book split into two parts – thanks Harry Potter) were eventually scrapped, as only three films were made, and the decisions to turn the third book into a mini-series was indefinitely reversed.

In a similar twist of fate, Maze Runner couldn’t navigate the labyrinth of the box office.. Only adapting three of five books, this series was also put on hiatus due to diminishing audience interest, with the only successful thing coming out of that franchise being the eyebrows guy (you know who I’m talking about).

Indeed, it seemed that Hunger Games was the only franchise that had the ability to sustain audiences’ appetites, and so the train kept on rolling for the series until its inevitable two part conclusion (fuck you, Harry Potter). Ross was kicked out of the director’s chair for the sequel and was replaced by Francis Lawrence, who carried the franchise to its end. 

Lawrence ditched the shaky handheld camerawork of Ross (thank the Lorde), with Catching Fire, the second film in the franchising, picking up several months after the first one ended. This film sees Katniss and Peeta return to the games as the Capitol tries to quell the emerging revolution inspired by her attempted sacrifice at the end of the first movie.

Catching Fire is actually an incredibly likable movie, and may be the best of the franchise – or at least, the on-screen adaptations. The action scenes are handled better, the new additions to the cast (Jenna Malone, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman) are great, and the arena itself, which takes the form of a giant clock, is an intriguing and entertaining setting. There’s a lot to love here.

Sadly, the franchise ran out of steam, and the bloated Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2 struggled to justify their two movie split. The final two films see Katniss becoming the symbol for the underground rebellion, which soon usurps President Snow. But wuh oh, turns out the rebellion was ALSO bad so Katniss kills the new leader – played by Julianne Moore – and then lives on a farm at the end with Peeta.

These last two entries were about as lackluster as the hype around them. By this time, interest in the dystopian YA genre was dwindling, and JLaw’s ‘lol so random XD’ persona could not sustain her popularity going into the mid-to-late 2010’s. I can also recall the studio attempting to replicate the same tired love triangle conversations that surrounded the Twilight franchise in order to sustain interest in the cultural zeitgeist (“Are you #TeamKale or #TeamPeniss?”) No wonder this didn’t take off.

Audiences were also clamoring for big budget entertainment that did not center whiteness. The films drew controversy for their casting; while the book describes Katniss as having olive skin, gray eyes, and black hair, Lawrence noticeably does not. On top of this, many of Katniss’s black allies are killed off, used merely to aid her in her quest and then discarded to add an emotional punch or psych her out.

Besides all this, Marvel’s monopoly of cinema screens seemed to be too powerful at this point, with studio’s rushing to pump out superhero films of their own and audiences clambering to see them. For context, the final film in this franchise came out the same year as the second Avengers film, and earned around $400 million less than it.

Lionsgate has been limping forward ever since the Hunger Games franchise ended, producing the modestly successful John Wick series and eventually dipping their toes in the superhero genre with the reboot of the Hellboy franchise, starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour. However, they have yet to find another successful franchise that they can milk dry.

Jennifer Lawrence’s career has similarly petered out since 2015, remerging every so often in forgettable films such as Joy, Mother! (sorry all you Frued fans out there), Red Sparrow, Passengers and the final X-Men films. But a fully fledged JLaw resurgence could be on the horizon, as 2021 saw her thrust into the spotlight once again upon her appearance alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Adam McKay’s incredibly shitty Don’t Look Up.

10 years on, and The Hunger Games doesn’t feel too out of place in our modern day film landscape. Franchise films and book adaptations are still a dime a dozen, and dystopian sci-fi will never go away, as much as some people like to claim audiences aren’t interested in these in a post-Trump, post-COVID world (just look at the popularity of Dune and the aforementioned Squid Game).

What is interesting to note is that a lot of these YA series at the time were generally geared towards women, with female protagonists at the helm. Those  familiar with  early 2010’s internet culture will remember there being a real disdain for anything that women, and young girls, seemed to enjoy. Most successful films nowadays are still clearly geared towards young boys, but I hope we can reevaluate the attitudes we once had during the early teens, and maybe bring back some high octane, big budget properties for young adult women- hopefully with more diversity and a feminine voice in the director’s chair this time.

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