The Hunger Games is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling novel, with a fine lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence.
As a fan of the book who enthusiastically approached the movie, I found it a bit short of the high bar the book set — mainly for reasons having to do with adapting a first-person, print account to a more distanced form of screen narrative.
Still, in comparison to other screen adaptations of young-adult fiction, The Hunger Games is miles ahead of the Twilight movies (not least because Collins provided far richer material than Stephenie Meyer) but not quite up to the best of the Harry Potter films.
Directed by Gary Ross, who co-wrote the screenplay with Collins and Billy Ray, the film is set in the nation of Panem, a reorganized North America divided into districts and ruled autocratically for decades since an uprising by some of its citizens. As punishment for the uprising, each of the 12 districts must annually provide a boy and a girl to compete against other districts’ young people in a vast arena; it’s kill or be killed for the participants in the televised games, with the last survivor declared the champion.
That’s a grim exercise passed off as entertainment. As young Katniss Everdeen says in the book, the games are the rulers’ “way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.” While some of the flourishes recall Arnold Schwarzenegger’s killing-game movie The Running Man, the tone overall is much closer to the somber original version of Rollerball. Indeed, while some critics have worried that the movie focuses too much on kids killing kids, an underlying message is about the way embracing unreasoned violence is dehumanizing.
Katniss, played by Lawrence, is in among the young people to be chosen at random from her district; when her younger sister’s name is drawn instead, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is then teamed with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) for training — and for presentation to the games’ audience — under guidance by a former champion, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and the stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). But Katniss and Peeta will eventually have to face the other young people, some of whom have spent their brief lives preparing for the games, and see how long they can live — and how willingly they can kill others.
Lawrence, as I said, is quite good as Katniss. The actress has an expressively intelligent face, as was evident in her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, and a down-to-earth attitude that sets her apart from some overly glamorized contemporaries; even when decked out in fancy gowns, she conveys her discomfort with the pretense. Harrelson is also fine, adept at the bitterness in his character. And Stanley Tucci, as the games’ TV host, is great fun; I also suspect he took a peek at Richard Dawson’s bravura performance in a similar role in The Running Man.
With about two hours and 20 minutes to tell a complicated story, the film has to cut some things, with mixed results. It conveys the poverty and despair of District 12, where Katniss lives, in efficient but powerful fashion. The movie makes excellent use of color schemes, with the bleakness of District 12 contrasted with the ever brighter hues surrounding the ruling class. It is less successful at fleshing out Katniss’ competitors, not least because it is so brief about the games training, where the other characters were more vivid on the page.
And a larger problem arises during the games themselves, which begin about an hour into the movie. The book is narrated by Katniss, so we are inside her head during the action; the film does not use a voiceover to convey her thoughts, so there are too many times when we simply see her taking action (or avoiding it) without a more precise emotional context. At the same time, the movie does at times break away from Katniss’ point of view — showing, for example, the reaction in one district to a big moment during the games, or letting us see how President Snow (Donald Sutherland, typically unnerving) is reacting to Katniss’ progress.
In addition, since this is based on the first book in a trilogy, people unfamiliar with the source material may find the conclusion too open-ended. Of course, we are in an age of cliffhanger movies (witness, again, Potter and Twilight). And, besides the expected big box-office returns, The Hunger Games as a movie has more than enough value to justify a big-screen continuation.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels. ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.