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The first of a planned trilogy (judging by early ticket sales, though, it’s probably safe to swap “planned” with “definitely gonna happen”), “The Hunger Games” is based on the first of three young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, about teenagers being conscripted into a kill-or-be-killed “game” that utilizes the “Highlander” rule — there can be only one. The Hunger Games of the title is an annual event held by Panem, the film’s dystopian nation (built on the remnants of North America), to “celebrate” a rebellion against the ruling Capitol by its 12 outlying, slave-labor Districts. While the Capitol’s citizens may say otherwise with their gaudy sense of fashion and flamboyant accessories, the rulers do not tolerate dissent. As such, forcing the Districts to present two of their kids to be killed for the Capitol’s pleasure is a none-too-subtle yearly reminder of this “don’t even think about doing it again” policy.
When Gary Ross’ film begins, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is surviving. Times are tough in her District, sure, as they are in all the Districts pecking away at existence under the Capitol’s boot heel, but Katniss knows how to hunt (thanks, dad!), enough to feed her mom and little sister Prim (Willow Shields). She spends her free time sneaking out into the woods with her (entirely platonic) bestest pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who dreams of rebelling against their cruel overlords. Katniss wants no part of such nonsense, she’s just trying to get by, and barely at that. But she might have to rethink her options when the annual Hunger Games arrive via the not-at-all-reassuring-sounding Reaping, and Prim is picked by random lottery to be her District’s female “tribute”. Katniss, ever the protective sister, volunteers in the girl’s stead, and off to the Capitol she goes, where her participation in the Games, along with 23 others, will be televised to all of Panem rather they want to watch or not. (Hey, at least it’s not pay-per-view, right?) The rules are simple: win and go home rich — lose, and die.
I’ll say this about Ross’ adaptation: fans of Collins’ novels will love it. It’s a very faithful take, which you would expect given that Collins co-wrote the script along with Ross and screenwriter Billy Ray. Ross takes the world that Collins built over three novels and actually builds on it, showing parts of Panem, along with the behind-the-scenes workings of the Games themselves, that were impossible given the constricting nature of a novel told in first-person. District 12 is impoverished and dirty and on the cusp of fading away into oblivion, while the Capitol is a glittering sea of colors and excess and people oblivious to the misery beyond their walls. Mind you, not that they would care even if they knew. Well, except for maybe one or two caring souls, such as Cinna (a surprisingly good Lenny Kravitz), the stylist assigned to turn Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute, baker’s son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) “pretty” for the pre-Games festivities, essentially media whoring events for the pleasure of the Capitol crowd. The celebratory orgy that is Capitol life against the dreary, day-to-day existence of the Districts make for powerful contrasts, indeed.
Jennifer Lawrence is the star of “The Hunger Games”, and if you didn’t buy into her in “X-Men: First Class” (I don’t blame you, she was one of many and was stuck under a gob of make-up to boot), then you will after this. “The Hunger Games”, as it should be, is Katniss’ story, and Lawrence fills the screen with a pitch-perfect combination of strength and vulnerability. She’s tough, yes, one of the toughest screen heroines in a while, but she’s also just a teenager, one that has had to grow up too fast, and she’s painfully unsure of herself, like Alice in a Wonderland, where death awaits at the other end of the hole. Lawrence is outstanding, and Ross smartly keeps the narrative contained almost exclusively on her. As the time to fight nears, you can practically feel the fear coursing thorugh her veins. Lawrence gets good support from Hutcherson, deceivingly charming and strong (not just physically) in his own way. He compliments Lawrence, setting the stage for a believable love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, who is stuck back home in District 12. The stoic, self-assured Hemsworth does what he can with the limited role, but rest assured, he’ll have more to do in the sequels.
I have to admit, I thought Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”) was an odd choice to direct, but he certainly proved me wrong. Ross “gets” the novels, that much is clear. Every character is perfectly cast, from surprising choices like Kravitz to veterans like Donald Sutherland as the dangerous President Snow, to Elizabeth Banks, making the most of Effie Trinket, the chaperone assigned to the District 12 tributes. Stanley Tucci as Capitol MC Caesar Flickerman works a lot better than he has any right to, while Woody Harrelson, as a former Games winner and functional drunk (although that’s perhaps a bit debatable) Haymitch Abernathy, has great chemistry with Lawrence and Hutcherson. One of these days someone will get around to making a prequel about Abernathy’s harrowing adventures in the Games, and it shall be glorious. Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, the head gamesmaker, gets more screentime here than he ever got in the books, but he’s mostly useful as our access to the franchise’s main villain, President Snow.
There is violence in “The Hunger Games”, as you knew there would be given the premise, but Ross manages to get around the film’s PG-13 rating with quick editing and handheld camerawork, especially in the early goings of the Games, when most of the contestants fall. You probably won’t find a bigger critic of shakicam than I, but fortunately Ross never gets too dangerously close to the Paul Greengrass style. There’s just enough movement and herky-jerky in the cameras to make the film feel natural once you get used to it, and of course, to hide much of the violence during the Games. Make no mistake, there is plenty of violence here, some deaths more graphic than others, though they never come across as gratuitous. It’s not “Battle Royale” by any stretch, but given the age of the participants, parents should nevertheless be fully aware of this fact before sending their young’uns off into the darken theaters without proper guidance.
Fans of the Collins’ books won’t have any choice but to love what Ross has put on the screen. It’s that dead on. But as much as the novels’ fans will love the translation, novices to the story needn’t be afraid of being left out. While the film does have a tendency to make big hops from one big scene to another, the script is usually good about explaining things, and even the unexplained shouldn’t make much of a difference to the film’s overall clarity. As the first of what is now certainly a guaranteed trilogy, “The Hunger Games” at times feels like it knows it has two more movies to get to everything, so there is a lot of build-up, especially in the first half. (It’s a good thing the film is well over two hours long.) Fortunately this only adds to the mounting tension as “game day” approaches. Still, though, Ross could have dragged out the film’s climactic moment a bit more; it comes across as too quick and anti-climatic here.
“The Hunger Games” will make you think, possibly shed a tear or two, and it will definitely make you stand up and cheer when the good guys triumph. It’ll also make you wonder when parts 2 and 3 (and possibly a fourth, considering the epic, jammed-pack nature of the third book) will get here already, because the wait is going to be excruciating.
Gary Ross (director) / Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)
CAST: Jennifer Lawrence … Katniss Everdeen
Josh Hutcherson … Peeta Mellark
Stanley Tucci … Caesar Flickerman
Liam Hemsworth … Gale Hawthorne
Elizabeth Banks … Effie Trinket
Wes Bentley … Seneca Crane
Willow Shields … Primrose Everdeen
Woody Harrelson … Haymitch Abernathy
Lenny Kravitz … Cinna
Amandla Stenberg … Rue
Dayo Okeniyi … Thresh
Donald Sutherland … President Snow