Hunger Games, The

Rating:

Katniss Scratch Fever

Main Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci

Director: Gary Ross

It seems like making a wildly popular young adult book series into movies is a no lose proposition these days.  You can produce decent movies, like Harry Potter, and make a gazillion dollars.  Or you can produce crap, like Twilight, and also make a gazillion dollars.  Who would pass up that kind of opportunity?  I know I wouldn’t.  But it also left me less than excited about the big screen adaptation of The Hunger Games – a book I really, really liked.  Now that crap had proven just as popular and lucrative as quality with the main target audience, I had no faith that Lionsgate would choose expensive quality over cheap crap.

But then…they started casting.  First it was Jennifer Lawrence as the main character Katniss Everdeen.  Lawrence is an extremely talented young actress whose first feature film – Winter’s Bone – garnered her an Oscar nomination.  My interest was definitely piqued.  The male leads were cast – Liam Hemsworth as Gale (Katniss’ best friend) and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta (the other District 12 games tribute) – and I wasn’t overly impressed.  They just looked like pretty boy teenagers to me.  Hutcherson was okay in The Kids are All Right, but nothing great.  It was the adult casting that drove me over the edge into full Hunger Games Fever.  Lionsgate clearly decided to go with the Harry Potter method of casting relatively unknown young actors and filling in the smaller adult roles with great talent.  Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland.  Younger but high visibility talent like Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley and Lenny Kravitz.  Be still my beating heart – I’m in love with these filmmakers!

But in the end, it all comes down to what makes it onto the screen.  Any cast can hit a home run, any cast can strike out.  The Hunger Games managed to hit a solid triple – not completely stellar, but absolutely entertaining, faithful to the spirit of the books and beautifully filmed and acted.

The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic sort of world, in a country known as Panem.  Panem is, geographically, the United States – we can only assume that the story takes place sometime in the future.  Panem has 12

Photo of Katniss and Gale

Katniss and Gale in District 12

Districts, each producing some vital product or service.  The Districts are, however, very poor.  The fruits of their labor all go to the capital, where the people are spoiled and clueless to the misery in the rest of the country.  Our story begins in District 12.

We open on the day of The Reaping.  You see, in Panem, there is a game each year.  The Hunger Games, in which one boy and one girl from each district are taken from their homes, dressed up, paraded through the capital and then placed in an arena to fight to the death.  They do this to remind the Districts that uprisings, like the one that took place ¾ of a century ago, will not be tolerated.  The people of the capital cheer and bet while the people of the districts mourn the loss of their sons and daughters.  This year, the tributes from the most impoverished District 12, the coal mining district, are Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson).  Hold on, people, we’re going to fight for our lives.

I will tell you no more plot – either you’ve read the book and know what happens or deserve to be surprised by what the film has to offer as we join Katniss and Peeta as they make their way through the gruesome proceedings that are The Hunger Games.

Photo of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss

Katniss in the Arena

My only real complaint about the movie is that I wish it could have been 3 times longer.  Not really, but there are things from the book that I missed.  We don’t get to spend a lot of time in District 12, learning about Panem, the games and the life of the people who try to survive in this most beleaguered of districts.  Katniss’ best friend Gale (Hemsworth) gets very little screen time and we miss feeling the grim poverty and desperation of the people who live in 12.  We also lose quite a bit of the elaborate preparation the tributes endure as they travel to and are “styled” for the games.  The juxtaposition of those extremes set forth the dichotomy between the rich and the poor in Panem and thus the dynamic established for not only this story but the two that follow.  The point is well made visually, but isn’t as deep or detailed as what the book offers.

But, such is the world of movies.  We must be shown on the screen what we are told in a book – and we can’t have everything.  The filmmakers do an admirable job setting the scene for the main action of the story visually while still attempting to give us a feel for District 12, Katniss’ life, friends and family and the horrible excess of the capital.  Kudos, especially, to cinematographer Tom Stern, costume designer Judianna Makovsky and the vast make-up department for showing us what there was no time to tell us – District 12 is beautiful but so horribly impoverished, the capital impressively architectural but the people vain, shallow and vapid.

Aside from the understandable omissions that are simply necessary when adapting a book for the screen, I have few if any real complaints about The Hunger Games.  Jennifer Lawrence is a pitch perfect Katniss, as I knew she would be.  She’s tough and cold and hard from living a tough, cold, hard life.  She’s also loyal and fierce.  There’s no whimpering for

Photo of Josh Hutcherson as Peeta

Peeta in the Arena

some boy to come rescue her – she’s fully in charge of her own destiny.  Josh Hutcherson as Peeta was good but not great.  Part of that isn’t his fault – he doesn’t physically fit the part and his dyed-blond hair didn’t look good on him.  His character isn’t as strong or interesting as Katniss, so he didn’t have as much to work with.  I liked him, but didn’t love him.

The adults were all marvelous.  From Harrelson as Haymitch, the only former games winner from District 12 (thus mentor to Katniss and Peeta) to Stanley Tucci as TV host Ceasar Flickerman to Donald Sutherland as the evil President Snow – each fully invested and brought professionalism, enthusiasm and a delicious taste for the excessive to their roles.  A couple of surprises for me – Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna.  I like Banks on 30 Rock, but was really impressed with her ability to take on the representation of everything shallow and callous about the capital and the games.  She nailed it without being too unlikable – a delicate balance.  And Lenny Kravitz – I admit I was skeptical.  But he did a marvelous job with the limited amount of time he had to make Cinna (Katniss’ stylist) into her ally and show that not everyone in the capital was the same.  Terrific performances from the entire cast.

I also have to give credit where it’s due – the action sequences were fabulous.  Once inside the arena the pacing was tight and the atmosphere fraught with peril.  The scenes in which the action slows to allow characters to build and bond were spaced perfectly to allow some breathing room for the audience before the next round of mayhem.  The fights were bloody but not excessively so – I think the PG-13 rating is appropriate.  The killings in the arena made me wince – exactly as they should.

The entire film is gorgeous – clearly this was not made on the cheap.  The special effects are relatively seamless both in the arena and in the control room where the game master (Bentley – another pleasant surprise and excellent performance) spins out obstacles and controls the games.  The lovely babbling brook and splendid forest of the arena were a perfect contrast to the horror of the games for which they were host.

Overall, I truly enjoyed The Hunger Games.  I got over my initial disappointment at not spending enough time setting up District 12 and the horrid excess of the games quickly as director Gary Ross spun out the rest of the story with great panache.  I would definitely recommend seeing this one on the big screen if you can, but it will transfer okay to high quality DVD as well.  4 1/2 stars out of 5 and recommended for pretty much everyone, whether you’ve read the book or not.

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