When Lionsgate began the task of adapting The Hunger Games for the screen, the odds were never in its favor. The book was too violent, too well-known and too hard to translate because not only was it about kids killing each other, it would also have to create a whole new world.
I’m happy to report that director/co-writer Gary Ross has made the impossible possible. With The Hunger Games he has made a rousing, highly-emotional, and epic film that will be engaging for new audiences and give chills to true fans. It’s hard to imagine someone making a better adaptation of Suzanne Collins‘ popular novel.
Major set pieces all carry the emotional resonance and excitement they deserve. Every single performance pops with life and energy. When changes are made, they’re made to streamline the huge story. Even so, the film never feels slight. If anything, at 2 hours and 22 minutes, it might be too long and a little more subtle than most audiences are used to. It demands us to infer and enjoy the ride. And we oblige.
I’ve written the basic plot description of The Hunger Games about a million times, but just in case you haven’t read it, here it is again. In the dystopian future nation of Panem, ruled from the wealthy and complacent Capitol, two children from each of the country’s state-like districts are chosen by government lottery to fight to the death. This televised contest is called The Hunger Games and we follow district 12 tributes Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) through the competition. They’re whisked away from their meager life and into the lap of luxury in the Capitol, only to then be placed in an arena were 24 enter but only one leaves. All the while, the world is watching.
Admittedly, the world of The Hunger Games can be a bit confusing, but Ross and company solved that problem beautifully. When the story itself doesn’t explain one of this world’s weird rules, such as why a particular insect is particularly deadly, Ross uses the construct of society to fill in the blanks – be it with an cut-away instructional video or interview seen or experienced by the characters. It might take well over an hour for the actual Games to begin, but the lead up is so dense and interesting, you almost don’t want it to end.
But it does. And the Games are great… right up until the death and mayhem get a wee bit repetitive two hours in. Thankfully, just as the film begins to stumble, it picks itself up out of the dirt and speeds to the finale, which is a real winner.
A lot of that, of course, has to do with the film’s two leads, Lawrence and Hutcherson. Katniss is in almost every frame of The Hunger Games and Lawrence’s portrayal of this potentially franchise-worthy character (there are two more books, after all) takes this to heart. She slowly steers Katniss from being a shy, capable provider for her family, to an unwilling but accepted participant in the Hunger Games. Eventually she evolves into a celebrity warrior and symbol for hope. Throughout, Lawrence maintains the same sweet and frightened center. One might think that nuanced performance would be intimidating for fellow actors. Yet Hutcherson, the second lead but still a minor character compared to Katniss, is the best he’s ever been: subtle, charming and sympathetic. The pair compliment each other nicely as friends, rivals and more.
As good as Lawerence and Hutcherson are, the film is grounded in the performances of the supporting cast. Elizabeth Banks is a hoot as handler Effie Trinket. Woody Harrelson is pitch perfect as mentor Haymitch Abernathy. Toby Jones (as announcer Claudius Templesmith) and Stanley Tucci (as TV personality Caesar Flickerman) seem to be having as much fun as they’ve had in years. The list goes on and on: Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, and Lenny Kravitz all entertain. Because these actors are doing such good work, their appearances – even when Ross expands on them beyond the bounds of the books – help keep the pacing of the long movie buoyant.
Despite what you may have heard, The Hunger Games is not Twilight. For the most part, the love story between Katniss, Peeta and Katniss’ friend back home, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), is very much in the subtext; it is given a back seat to Katniss’ struggle in the new world. However, therein lies the problem. Ross never force-feeds the audience. He regularly lets us discover character motivations, relationships and plot connections on our own. That works most of the time, and can be quite rewarding in others. But without straight-out telling us what’s happening in certain instances, things tend to get a little fuzzy. Still, it’s nice to say a film’s biggest flaw is that it can be too intuitive for its audience.
Fans of The Hunger Games are going to be incredibly pleased with this exceptional movie. It gives them everything they were expecting in addition to things they weren’t. The links for the non-fans might be lacking, and the same can be said for their excitement level in this marathon story, but overall the experience is rewarding and entertaining. Bring on Catching Fire.
/Film rating: 8 out of 10
The Hunger Games opens everywhere March 23.