In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Winter hiatus may be, historically, a dismal time for television addicts. But the world is changing, and Hulu is our lead enabler. The United Kingdom has given America the Christmas gift of Misfits, a comedy/drama science-fiction series about a group of criminal young adults who develop superpowers while performing court ordered community service during a bizarre, supernatural storm. The first two series of the show were released on Hulu this past June, and now we are being graced with Series 3: with new episodes coming to the site every Monday (today marks the second episode of the series to be released in America).
We got a chance to sit down with Iwan Rheon, who plays the show's iconic, and indubitably most heroic character, Simon Bellamy. When we first meet Simon in Series 1, he's a shy, socially anxious and unconfident young man. But as he becomes more enrapt in the dark and strange events of the series, and more involved in the lives of his fellow Misfits, Simon becomes something else entirely. Rheon gave us a few of his thoughts on the challenges behind playing a character with two distinctly different sides, working with some of the other cast members and writers, and what he thinks we might be in store for in future Misfits episodes.
Just to start off, what has it been like working on Misfits? And working with some of the other actors on the show?
It’s been brilliant. Such a great opportunity for me. Particularly, how lucky I’ve been with the writing and the great storylines that I’ve been given. So, yeah, I feel really lucky. And it’s been great to work with all the other guys, and to work with such different people all the time. It’s been fantastic.
That’s awesome. And speaking of the writing, I actually read online that you contributed to the creation of Simon?
Um, yeah, in certain ways. Particularly before we started filming the first year, I had some really cool time with the director and the writer to discuss where we thought the characters were going and what we thought they were. And we decided how we’d go about the look and all that stuff. For Simon, we were really interested in…making him not a sort of stereotypical geek. There are so many—you see so often that people are just made into a geek…and that’s the great thing, I think, about Misfits, is that they’re all quite archetypally straight characters, and you can kind of see what each one is, but you always get surprised, and you always get a really three-dimensional view of the person.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the things I love about the show: how completely…multifaceted all of the characters are. Did any part of the creation of Simon come directly from you? Were you inspired by anything else in fiction? In science-fiction, specifically?
It was all quite a fast but organic thing with the director Tom Green. We just kind of used what we had in the script, and just tried to make it a really original character. And we sort of toyed around with different things, and ended up just going with the painful shyness that he has. We wanted to make him quite cool in his own little way. He’s just got his own thing going on. He’s really knowledgeable about music and filming stuff…which we seemed to forget in the second and third series. But it was really nice to be able to work with the director and develop the character.
Speaking of that, his knowledge of pieces of science-fiction or film in general often helps the storyline go, because he knows what’s going on with these superheroes when nobody else does. That’s something I especially love about his character. Do you think that the show could even exist without that?
I think the gang as a unit needs someone [like Simon] because of all these things that are happening—and I think that’s part of the beauty of it: none of them have got clue what’s going on. They’re just normal people in this very strange situation, and they’re all kind of idiots. [Laughs] And Simon is kind of always the one that has all the answers, and they never listen to him. I think, gradually, throughout the three series, you kind of see [them] kind of realizing [Simon’s] value, because he’s always right.
A pretty cool thing about your character: when we first meet him in the pilot episode, and the version of Simon that comes back from the future, are two very, very different people. But they’re both: of course, Simon. How was playing two different versions of the same character? And keeping them based in the same guy but different enough that you could notice the differences?
Oh, it was great. As an actor, it’s like a dream come true. You’ve always got a sort of character arc, and a journey that the character goes on throughout the series, but then to get to play the end of the character in the second series when, they’re so far from reaching that, when Simon himself is so far from reaching that, it was a great challenge for me. I really enjoyed it…I’m really lucky with the writing, and how they gave me that opportunity to do something completely different although stay within the same character. It’s just a great opportunity. I think it’s every actor’s dream. You know, I’m so used to playing the painfully shy virgin off in the corner who doesn’t say a word. And then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Hello!’ [Laughs] He’s kind of a super-confident guy, going from speakers one to ten. It’s brilliant.
What I’m sure is also pretty cool is that you got a chance to interact a lot more with the character Alisha. I’m interested to know, in the first two series—and we’ve only gotten the first episode of the third series over here in America—most of your really substantial interaction was with Alisha, or, before that, with Nathan. And I’m wondering if we’re going to see Simon develop a relationship, maybe, with Curtis, or Kelly, or Rudy.
I think Rudy and Simon have got a great thing going on. Because Simon’s so serious and straight…and he doesn’t mess around with his superpowers. And then you’ve got this Rudy character, who is an absolute idiot. And he’s like, almost the opposite of Simon. You get that really good comedy dynamic between the two characters, where you see Simon’s exasperation with having to talk to this fool. And it’s very different—the Simon who is in the third series has grown a lot and is a lot more confident. So he’s as not belittled as he was by Nathan. He doesn’t have to take that stuff anymore. [Simon and Rudy] are kind of on a level, even playing plane. Episode Six is a really funny episode. Simon and Rudy go on an adventure. [Laughs] I think, in the third series, you see that the gang has actually become friends…whether they like it or not. They’ve developed a real bond with each other. You really see that happening, whereas before, they were kind of just in this situation together, and they had no choice. So now, there’s a nice friendship between all of them. And a dependency, because they’re in this together.
That’s awesome. I’m looking forward to that. Are there any other changes that are going to occur in the third series?
Yeah, well, loads happens, and you see that the character Seth—he’s the power-dealer—he comes into it a lot more. He’s quite a common figure in the series. And I think in terms of Simon: the burden of knowing that he has this sort of destiny laid out in front of him, and having to reach [that] and how difficult it is. And how…he’s got this most incredible, beautiful girlfriend, and his life is probably the best it has ever been—but he feels that ending, he’s afraid of the fact that he’s going to have to throw all that away. He’s going to die to save Alisha in the past.
That’s actually got to be an acting challenge: playing someone who knows he’s about it. What’s that like?
Yeah. Well, I think Simon, the way he is, he’s willing to accept his fate. He’s a strong believer in all of that stuff. I think for me, as an actor, the challenge is—it works from the beginning of the second series, knowing what the future Simon is like. It’s this slow development into this more confident character. It’s almost like, every episode, he’s building his confidence, he’s building his abilities, he’s building his strength—to link it all up, so that when it does all kick off, he’s there, and he is the character that came back from the future. So, that’s been the challenge for me.
And I’d also like to ask, speaking of challenges, the show is terrific at balancing its drama its comedy, and the science fiction world, and delivering them all in a way that they work together. They build each other up, rather than stepping on each other. How is it, from your perspective, that you guys can do that so well?
It boils down, I think, to just great writing. It all starts from the script…the scripts are brilliant. Howard has been able to, now, from knowing is, write for us, as actors. He knows our strengths. He knows how we speak, the patterns in our speech. He can really write for that. And I think it’s important that we’ve got great directors on board that have a knowledge for all those sort of genres. So they can do—they know what’s funny, and they know when to be serious. In the scripts themselves, there’s a fantastic balance of that. Yeah, I think you have to credit the writing, really, for that. Definitely Howard Overman. He’s a genius. He’s a crazy genius. With a dark mind.
The dialogue on your show is fantastic. But credit to you guys, as well—it’s delivered terrifically. Is there any specific place you’d like to see your character, or any of the characters, go in the future of the show?
Well, I think Simon has got his future laid out for him. I think what the characters want is just to finish doing community service. That’s all they really want—and to try not to get killed. And really to try not to kill any more probation workers. I think the show just has a natural way of developing itself and reinventing itself.
And I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but I have to ask this: if you yourself were in the Misfits storm, and you got struck by the lightning, what do you think your superpower would end up being?
[Laughs] Well, it kind of depends on how you feel at the time. That’s a difficult question. I don’t actually get asked this a lot.
I think it would be…the power to be able to create a musical instrument out of anything.
That’s really interesting! That’s not one I’ve heard before!
Music is my great passion, so that would be nice to be able to do that.
Well that’s awesome. I hope we get to see some of that in the show.
[Laughs] Yeah. Probably not.
Watch a new episode of Misfits every Monday on Hulu.
You'd think a British series about a group of young adult ne'er-do-wells getting struck by lightning during their mandatory community service and as a result developing superhuman abilities would peak at "watchable." But you'd be wrong: it's super good. Good enough to warrant jokes like that. Good enough to rake in substantial ratings on Hulu. And good enough, still, to inspire writer/producer Josh Schwartz to remake it for American audiences.
The series in question is called Misfits. So far, it has aired for two short seasons in the United Kingdom, and will begin its third on Oct. 30. The U.S. got a taste for it through Hulu, where the series proved to be a huge hit. And now, it is being remade for American TV by Schwartz: creator of The O.C. and executive producer on Chuck and Gossip Girl. Fans of the original will be pleased to know that Schwartz is teaming up with Misfits creator Howard Overman to write the pilot script.
Misfits has been praised for both its clever wit and its sincerity in the portrayal of the "gritty" side of young adulthood, as well as for its intriguing and approachable science-fiction themes.