As someone who devoured The Hunger Games during a single marathon sitting a week before the movie’s release, I was particularly curious and excited to see Suzanne Collins’ best seller get the big-screen treatment. Judging by all the Team Peeta devotees and side-braid-sporting, would-be Katnisses — who had certainly been waiting for the movie a lot longer than I had — at my opening night screening, I was far from the only one. (The record-breaking box office was another clue.) Still, in a theater packed with rabid superfans, and with a beloved property making its much-anticipated jump onto the silver screen, the question of whether or not the movie is actually any good can often seem somewhat beside the point.
In case you’ve been living under a rock — or were buried in a District 12 mine explosion — The Hunger Games is set in the nation of Panem, what’s left of North America after an unspecified apocalyptic event in the future. Panem consists of the wealthy, oppressive Capitol and its 12 surrounding districts. Every year, each district must send one boy and one girl — ages 12 to 18, and known as “tributes” — to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised battle to the death meant to re-establish the Capitol’s dominance over the rest of the nation.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers for the 74th Hunger Games, after younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen as District 12’s female tribute. Despite being a skilled hunter and archer, Katniss’s odds are most certainly not in her favor as she faces off against 23 other tributes, including a few who specifically trained to participate in the Hunger Games (like Alexander Ludwig’s Cato, the reincarnation of Billy Zabka in The Karate Kid) as well as Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her male counterpart from District 12.
Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: I am not here to compare this film to Collins’ book. I strongly a believe any movie — whether it’s based on a book, a play or a theme park ride — should be able to stand on its own. Also, since the novel is so fresh in my mind, if I listed all the differences, alterations and omissions between The Hunger Games book and the movie, we’d probably be here until Catching Fire hits theaters. (Another point: The Hunger Games already clocks in at a robust 142 minutes.)
Besides, the best thing this movie has going for it is a good-old-fashioned, star-making turn. Obviously, Collins deserves a ton of credit for creating such a well-rounded heroine, but the main reason this movie works is because of Lawrence. The actress — who already earned an Oscar nomination for playing a tough-minded teen forced to be the head of her household in Winter’s Bone — is heroic, vulnerable and totally convincing as a nimble action star, while still managing to remind us that Katniss is a scared kid. She’s so good, her leading men can’t help but suffer in comparison. I really wish Hutcherson had brought more of an edge or inscrutability to his mostly bland, nice guy portrayal of Peeta. Meanwhile, Liam Hemsworth’s hulking Gale — Katniss’s platonic(?) hunting partner back home — is more effective when he’s silently reacting to Katniss and Peeta’s blossoming showmance during the Hunger Games, and less effective when he’s speaking.
Though the young cast shoulders a significant burden, they are ably supported by an impressive parade of wigs (and the character actors who wear them). Faring the best are Elizabeth Banks (seemingly the only person interested in even attempting a “Capitol accent” as District 12 escort Effie Trinket), Stanley Tucci (as blue-haired interviewer Caesar Flickerman) and Woody Harrelson (amusing even as a watered-down version of drunken District 12 mentor and former Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy). Together, they provide most of the comic relief. Lenny Kravitz is suitably empathetic as friendly stylist Cinna, while Donald Sutherland’s performance merely hints at the trouble his President Snow will cause in future movies. Also, I’d love to tell you about Wes Bentley’s work as Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane, but I was too mesmerized by his facial hair to remember anything he said or did.
Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) does a slightly better job of establishing the impoverished District 12 than the outrageous Capitol, but they’re both vividly realized. Unfortunately, I felt he came up short once the action moved into the Hunger Games arena. I’m not even referring to the hyperactive and creative editing required to tone down the violence and secure a PG-13 rating. (That’s the cost of doing business: the movie would’ve been very successful if it had been rated R, but it wouldn’t have pulled in $152 million on opening weekend!) I’m talking about the way the movie seems to be in too much of a hurry to move from one story beat to the next: basically, there’s no time for the tributes to even go hungry in the Hunger Games. On top of that, I felt Ross — who also wrote the screenplay — could have hit the satirical aspects of the story a little harder. We see Crane manipulate the proceedings like any good reality show producer, and we get a glimpse of the poorer districts solemnly forced to watch the Hunger Games unfold, but where are the Capitol people who supposedly eat this stuff up? (Remember the viewers glued to their sets while The Truman Show was on?) That audience, even during Flickerman’s interviews, is largely faceless and pretty much a non-entity.
In the end, Ross’s movie effectively transfers the essence of Suzanne Collins’ book to the big screen while also hinting at adventures yet to come. The movie is quite good, but doesn’t achieve excellence — not that anyone in that rapturous opening night screening noticed or cared.