!This Article Contains Spoilers!
Firstly, let's outline that key question, because that is what gives it its attraction, and is also what lets it down, because they blow the power of that key question halfway through the story.
In a futuristic world, The Hunger Games is an annual entertainment put on by the repressive government ('The Capitol'). Each of the twelve districts must donate two people between the age of 12 and 18 to the games. All 24 of these young people - 'tributes', as they are called - are set free in a televised terrain where they must kill or be killed on reality TV. Only one of the 24 can survive, and return home a hero. But it isn't simply survival of the fittest. If a tribute appeals to the audience, they can gain practical help in the field from 'sponsors', so having public appeal is also a key factor. The story follows the journey of the two tributes from District 12: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The tension in the story comes from our knowledge that, although their relationship is steadily growing and intensifying as the story progresses, only one of them can survive. As the story goes on, they begin to fall in love (or are they? Is it just a ploy by Katniss for sponsors?). The key question looms large over us and tightens its grip because we know, at some point one of them... is going to have to kill the other one. Excellent, excellent, gripping, powerful story.
So why – oh, please why – did the writers have the ‘Capitol’ introduce a new rule halfway through the game by announcing: ‘actually, just this once, we’re going to let two people survive the games, provided they are from the same district.’ What the hell would you do a stupid thing like that for?! The story is now shot to pieces. Oh! Two can survive now! Well, I wonder who on earth THAT could be?! Might it turn out to be - ooh, let me think now - might it be... Katniss and Peeta (the only district partnership we even know the names of anyway!)? Now we know who will survive. The jeopardy is decimated. The tension is gone. The story is over. There is no other subtext to carry the story. Finished. Forget it. Go home.
And it's SO good up until then! It's a crime! What doubles my horror at the way they utterly blew the story power is that they then, just in time for the very end, they bring it back in again! The Capitol make another announcement: 'Errr. We've changed our minds, and now only one can survive.'
Yes, it gives the story traction again, because now we feel the tension again - one of them will have to kill the other, but we've had an hour of knowing the outcome, so putting the doubt back in for what turns out to be ONE MINUTE is hardly going to rescue the thing. Clearly, the writers saw that they had to do this to create any kind of cleverness in the ending, so they put it back! Which just makes taking it out in the first place all the more unbelievable!
What makes it even worse is that the Romeo and Juliet ending we are offered at climax (it's not what happens), whereby Katniss and Peeta choose to commit suicide together - thereby removing the power of the Capitol, making their love sublime for all eternity, making them into martyrs and causing a furious revolution in the districts - would have made this film an all time classic – BUT only if they'd kept that tension gripping us throughout. If the jeopardy had been there the whole way through we would have remained utterly gripped by the knowledge that one of them MUST die, doubly gripped as their relationship grows, and totally knocked out when they choose to commit suicide together to confound the Capitol and undermine their power.
Now, I understand why they did it. They wanted to force a love story into the reality television show, and by announcing that two from the same district could survive, this was done, but the same 'love dynamic' could have been introduced by having Katniss, recognising the power of gaining sponsorship, feign her love for Peeta as a strategy all by herself. This would have shown her character growth and cleverness. As it is, that one announcement makes it a weak story and one of the worst errors and biggest missed opportunities I have ever seen.
Apart from that trashed key question, the other serious issue is that there is no other subtext. All the story participants - the characters, the Capitol, the audience, author, you, me - everyone - know just as much as everyone else. Yes, the Capitol are sneaky and evil - but the moves they make are instantly communicated to all participants. There's no difference in the information held by the different story participants, Katniss and Peeta are trustworthy towards each other, even in the early stages when we know that they fell out in previous years and Katniss has good reason not to trust him now. Even the excellently dubious character who is to coach them - Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) - a previous winner of the games from District 12 - doesn't have an agenda and doesn't do anything dodgy, despite his clear dialogue with the Capitol. It just doesn't go anywhere. Despite the nature of the dog-eat-dog games, everyone knows everything that is going on. The human mind feeds off subtext - it's what we look for in a story, and this is why Hunger Games leaves a nagging hollow feeling you can't quite explain.
Another negative is the real evil bad guy - President Snow. Katniss, through her anti-establishment rebellion, comes to his attention, and he shows his displeasure and orders that her 'hope' is removed. But nothing happens! There's no clear action taken as a result of the top man's displeasure or orders. No plan. No action. Nothing changes. The bad side of a story has to be proactive and threatening. Unfortunately, as it is... nothing changes as a result of his displeasure.
I suspect - and hope - that the problems of this first film will be remedied across the course of the trilogy. The Harry Potter series is a little like this. Most of the individual films are rather difficult to enjoy in isolation (unless you've read the books), but the story power across the seven is awesome. Similarly with The Hunger Games, the potential is immense, and terrific foundations are now in place, but this first film, taken on its own, is not as powerful as it could have been with more subtext, and with the tension being allowed to persist throughout through our knowing that one of the two heroes must die at the hands of the other. If it had been allowed to persist, the lovers could still have been refused to play their game, choosing to live or die together, but refusing to kill one-another, but the power of the story could have been maintained throughout and magnified with this one simple story flaw being removed.
Shame. Still - greatly enjoyable, and I suspect the trilogy will satisfy in story terms by the end.