After months and months of hype, it's finally show time for the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' massively popular dystopian YA novel The Hunger Games as it drops in theaters on March 23rd. The book, and its subsequent sequels, is a dark exploration of government oppression, violence as entertainment, rebellion and eventually war as seen through the eyes of a revolution's spark, 16-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen (played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence).
While the books were originally geared towards a young adult audience, their grand crossover success comes from its heroine's taut first person narrative, the frank depiction of the game's brutality and Collin's own original spin on familiar genre works like Battle Royale and The Running Man, amongst others. The book and film both center on the future nation of Panem. What was once the United States is now a collection of 12 repressed Districts run by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) from his Capitol. In retribution for a long ago suppressed rebellion by those Districts, Snow and his ostentatious city dwellers inflict an annual retribution on the outlying citizens. 24 of their children - aged 12 to 18 – are randomly selected, then packed off to the Capitol and trained to kill one another in a government sanctioned fight to the death played out on live television. Since the announcement of the movie adaption, the book's fans have questioned if it can translate well to the big screen with a PG-13 rating shackling the potent horrific acts that make the books and their ultimate message such a visceral reading experience. The answer is yes, director Gary Ross has managed to translate Katniss, the main themes and pretty much the spirit of Collin's book into his very strong film.
As directed and co-written by Ross (Pleasantville), The Hunger Games certainly tempers the book's brutal violence, including some of the horrific creatures masterminded by the Capitol Gamesmakers, in order to keep the film firmly planted in Everdeen's perspective and, one assumes, to reign in the slippery slope of visually glorifying the terrible acts she witnesses, thus muddying the story's intention. Ross uses a cinéma vérité style of shooting to give the film a very intimate, desperate feel, mirroring Katniss' own heightened perspective that doesn't allow for many lingering shots of kills, blood splatter or reflection on the loss of the more dedicated contestants that actually revel in the blood lust. Katniss is a girl on the move from the start of the film, through her time in the Capitol and into the games, which sets the tone that violent voyeurism isn't what this movie is about. For the film, it's a smart call because Ross not only creates a kinetic energy for Katniss and her mission of survival that makes for a brisk pace, but that aesthetic choice means that when he does decide to slow the camera work down, he adds immediate weight to the rare deaths that do elicit an emotional impact from the resourceful yet closed-off Katniss. And just to clarify, there are brutal deaths a plenty, but Ross is creative with most of those moments using tension and great staging to pack a punch. His only major lost opportunity is to downplay the genetic creatures unleashed by the Capitol in the last act so much so that they have any visual impact or usher in the sheer terror that they should as a climactic barrier for our heroes.
The trade off for the gore is more focus on Katniss, which doesn't feel like a sacrifice in the hands of Lawrence. She does a fantastic job playing a modest young woman with one goal – help her impoverished widowed mother and sweet young sister, Prim, survive – even if that means volunteering to take her sister's place in the games. Yes, she scowls a lot but Lawrence makes sure you see Katniss' vulnerability and her heart clearly too which makes her so worth rooting for and admiring for all the right reasons. Katniss is only truly comfortable around her District hunting partner Gale Hawthorne (played briefly by Liam Hemsworth), so Lawrence beautifully plays out Everdeen's uncomfortable transformation from braided forest poacher into a flamboyantly (and flaming) costumed game player absorbing that she's now constantly living in the lens of the Capitol's cameras and everything she does affects her ultimate outcome.
Helping her figure out how to play the Capitol's game are some great supporting turns from the eclectic cast. Woody Harrelson makes some interesting choices as former District 12 victor-turned-mentor Haymitch Abernathy, whom he transforms from a disconnected drunk to a canny advocate that works behind the scenes to keep Katniss alive and supported inside the Arena. Lenny Kravitz is nicely understated as Cinna, Katniss' stylist and kindred spirit from inside the Capitol that sees her potential inside and out. And Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci, as garish Capitol employees of the games Effie Trinket and Caesar Flickerman respectively, manage to be horrific poster children of fashion and hair coloring excess but they add sly wit and grounding to their potentially cartoonish personas.
Last but not least is Katniss' District 12 partner, the empathic baker's son, Peeta Mellark played by Josh Huctherson. Lucky him, he's the guy who gets picked to fight to the death next to the girl he's secretly harbored a massive crush on for years. Gratefully, Mellark rises above just being the love interest in Hutcherson's able hands. At first crushed by his predicament, Peeta then pulls himself together and is adamant about holding onto his moral core in the games. It's almost an alien intention to the singular-focused Katniss, but she comes to admire Mellark and his goal even when she has to toy with it as she's pushed into playing out a star-crossed lovers act with him to better their odds of survival.
Judged solely as a movie, The Hunger Games is an involving piece of filmmaking, especially the first half. Ross introduces an involving world that is both bizarre and beautiful, tackles the mature exploration of the duality of hope and how difficult it is to snuff out, and authentically portrays a fierce heroine who carries the film on her back while remaining realistic and relatable. If it stumbles anywhere, it's in the last 15 minutes as Ross tries to pack in too much too quickly without servicing some of the emotional beats with the time needed to leave the audience with a clearer sense of where Katniss is emotionally after so much chaos. At least there is a semblance of closure, even though the door is left wide open teasing what's to come in the second film as the masterful glare of Donald Sutherland's Snow promises more retribution to come.