Like the book series that inspired it, The Hunger Games is deeply unsettling and tragic, a dystopian tale that skewers reality TV among other questionable social obsessions. The Hunger Games can not and should not be dismissed simply as another young adult thriller with a pretty heroine stuck between choosing two equally appealing guys. Suzanne Collins' novels can't be summed up that easily, and neither can The Hunger Games movie.
Collins' world is filled with colorful characters (the Capitol residents take that 'colorful' definition quite literally), and director Gary Ross - who also shares writing credit on the screenplay with Collins and Billy Ray - has provided fans of the series with an extremely faithful adaptation that brings to life on the screen the images and people Collins created. There are tweaks to the story, some due to time constraints, others most likely done so as not to confuse audiences who haven't read the books by inserting interesting but not vital subplots. But the important elements - Katniss' fierce personality and loyalty to her family and friends, Peeta's goodness, and the sheer unrelenting brutality of the annual slaughter of teenagers by teenagers in the 'Hunger Games' - are all captured perfectly.
The Story [Spoiler-Free]:
The Hunger Games is set in a future America in which wars have wiped out all but small population centers (known as Districts). The Capitol rules over the Districts, and each District is responsible for one major industry. And after an uprising which saw one District completely obliterated (District 13), the Capitol now controls every aspect of life for the citizens of each District.
As a punishment and a reminder of what happens when Districts revolt, the Capitol has set up an annual competition known as the Hunger Games. Each District must send one boy and one girl (known as Tributes) between the ages of 12 and 18 to take part in the Hunger Games, with the names drawn at random in 'reaping' ceremonies. Once selected, the Tributes are immediately whisked away to the Capitol where they are assigned a team to both make them presentable to potential financial sponsors and prepare them for the competition: a televised fight to the death between all 24 Tributes from which only one Tribute may emerge victorious.
District 12 is the poorest of all the Districts and seldom has a Hunger Games winner. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a skilled hunter with a bow and arrows who, along with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), has been illegally hunting outside the District 12 compound for years, steps forward and volunteers for her 12 year old sister, Prim, after Prim's name is drawn. District 12's other Tribute is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the baker's son who years earlier had tossed Katniss a loaf of burnt bread which helped keep her family from starving at one of the Everdeen family's lowest points. After making sure Gale will take care of Prim and her mother, Katniss bravely prepares for the Games, believing she is capable of winning. Peeta's equally sure he can't win, but, no matter what, hopes to remain true to himself and not wind up just another player in the Capitol's game.
It's a battle to the death, with the Capitol residents celebrating the slaughter of innocent young people in gruesome ways, while the Districts can only hope their sons and daughters will return victorious.
The Hunger Games wouldn't work if Jennifer Lawrence wasn't believable as Katniss. Less than five minutes into the film, it's apparent Ross made the right decision in tapping the Oscar nominated actress (Winter's Bone) to carry the load in The Hunger Games. Lawrence is Katniss, plain and simple. There are moments of brilliance in Lawrence's performance, moments that will absolutely break your heart with their honesty. As she's being lifted into the Hunger Games arena, she is scared beyond words, not acting scared beyond words. When she reacts to Peeta's declaration of love, you believe she could tear his head off if she wasn't being held back. And when she holds a dying 12 year fellow Tribute in her arms and sings her off to eternal sleep, it raises goosebumps. I can't picture anyone else in this role after taking in Lawrence's performance.
Lawrence outshines Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth (who doesn't get much screen time, but that's also being faithful to the first book of the series), although both actors do deliver fine performances. Hemsworth plays the part of best friend/possible love interest well, and Hutcherson's Peeta is sympathetic and has that boy-next-door quality that almost makes it impossible not to root for him to get the girl.
Ross has also set the franchise up well by the casting of the supporting characters who are vital to not only The Hunger Games but also Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Lenny Kravitz as District 12's costume designer for the Games, Elizabeth Banks as the annoyingly clueless Effie Trinket, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the angry, alcoholic past Hunger Games winner from District 12 who's now tasked with mentoring all Tributes from his District, are well cast and deliver impressive performances. We also see a little of Donald Sutherland as the snake in the grass President Snow and far too little of Toby Jones, but thankfully we'll see more of both in the next installments. Of the supporting players, the one who has the biggest impact is Stanley Tucci, dressed in ridiculous costumes and playing the Hunger Games host, Caesar Flickerman. Tucci doesn't just chew up the scenery, he makes a salad out of it and invites everyone to join in the fun.
The Bottom Line:
Parents who haven't read The Hunger Games - or who haven't researched the story - could be in for a major surprise at the fact the film does not flinch away from the brutal killings of kids. At the screening I attended a woman behind me was obviously distressed by the deaths on screen, and parents should be forewarned that while the movie is rated PG-13, the subject matter is extremely dark and disturbing.
The one major problem I had with The Hunger Games is the continuous use of the shaky cam style of shooting. Ross has explained his decision, and what he's offered up as his reasoning does make sense. Ross said he wanted to stay away from creating a film that would mirror what the Capitol represented. "I felt that it was very important to stay urgent and in Katniss' point of view and that this had a slightly caught/captured verite quality in order to feel real, and that if I made a glossy, slick, kind of overproduced piece of entertainment that I become the Capitol. I'm basically staging the Hunger Games and I'm not doing a movie about the Hunger Games at that point, and that you had to feel the same. And I thought a lot about what it meant to shoot in a character's point of view and how urgent and raw and immediate that had to be," explained Ross.
His reasoning is solid, however that doesn't make the use of the shaky cam any less intrusively irritating, particular in quieter, dialogue-driven moments. It does make sense for the film as soon as Katniss enters the Hunger Games arena, but it's not necessary to continue the use of the handheld style outside of the death match between the Tributes.
Shaky cam aside, having read the books and after watching The Hunger Games, it's difficult to picture a more faithful adaptation that still works as a film and doesn't push the running time over three hours. As it stands, The Hunger Games is nearly two and a half hours long, but it's paced well and doesn't have any obvious fluff that could have been cut or slow points that bog the story down. The story deserves the lengthy running time, and Ross and his co-writers don't rush their way through scenes that, having read the book, you might assume they'd gloss over. Only the exposition that is absolutely required is included; every one of its 142 minutes is important.
The Hunger Games was directed by Gary Ross and is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens.
Theatrical Release: March 23, 2012