The Hunger Games (****)

As a film reviewer, I seem to stumble into the same conversations time and time again when I share my thoughts on a film adaptation of a widely acclaimed and/or massively successful book I have yet to read. I often find the talk comes to rest with the individual who has read the book informing me…”Well, you haven’t read the book, so…”.

In the case of a film like The Help for example, several folks made mention that I simply did not like the movie near to the level of someone who experienced the book. In the case of Twilight, I am often told that I simply don’t get it. And now we have The Hunger Games, a cinematic adaptation of the massively popular Suzanne Collins trilogy, which is also the most eagerly anticipated film to arrive in months. And I have yet to read the book. So, pardon me “Hunger Games” fans as I tread ever so lightly through the next few paragraphs.

And to those Twilight Saga fans out there…
This is how you make a proper book-to-film adaptation.

For those who are still without any clue of what The Hunger Games story is about, let me offer this summary…

In a post-apocalyptic North America, now identified as Panem, governance is mandated by The Capitol, a haven for wealth, power, and privilege. The surrounding areas, or villages, are divided into 12 Districts. While some Districts have a fair amount of wealth and opportunity, many of the Districts are poor and in the case of one District in particular, District 12, the conditions are hopelessly bleak and impoverished, destitute and barren.

Each year, every District selects one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in an event known as “The Hunger Games”, wherein 24 of these young men and women, identified as Tributes, literally engage in an outdoor fight to the death. The last man or woman standing is named the victor and are provided with a life of luxury. Additionally, they become mentors and assist in training and readying future Tributes for battle.

At the District 12 “Reaping”, a 12-year old girl named Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected as the female combatant, and her 16-year old sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) stuns the crowd by being District 12’s first-ever volunteer entrant. The male chosen is 16-year old Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who is shellshocked at his selection, but recalls a previous encounter he had with Katniss in the past. Whisked by bullet train to The Capitol for training and preparations, Katniss and Peeta are introduced to their mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a drunken former Hunger Games victor himself. Along with stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and the uptight and proper Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Haymitch attempts to mold the District 12 representatives into television stars, which will make them popular with both viewers and the coveted “sponsors”, who can send assistance to the players they admire.

Given a hero’s welcome, the Tributes are introduced in a gaudy, rather low-rent, Olympic ceremony-style event, and offered well wishes from the nation’s President (Donald Sutherland). On the eve of the 74th Hunger Games, the Tributes are interviewed by the smarmy, obnoxious, and larger-than-life TV presenter Caesar (a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci), and quickly become round-the-clock reality television stars, whose every movement, kill, and death will be captured on television for all of Panem to see.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

From the initial beginnings, with its shaky hand-held perspective and raw, unpolished editing style, The Hunger Games does not look or feel like anyone might expect. While the film never feels out of control or mismanaged, the opening minutes resemble Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated work in 2010’s searing drama Winter’s Bone. The poverty-stricken inhabitants of District 12 desperately seek food and drink, hunt squirrel and owls, and try to avoid the possibility of impending starvation. Katniss is the caretaker of her sister Primrose, and the girls’ mother is largely unable to keep her wits about herself.

Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) paints many of his opening moments with a colorless gray, which is staggering in hindsight when compared to the bold blasts of color which punctuate the outlandish Capitol characters and set design. Lawrence almost immediately proves to be a perfect choice for Katniss – a female character who must embody a beauty that makes her attractive to others, while always exhibiting a compassionate but intense persona that makes her a worrisome threat and a galvanizing protagonist. Lawrence nails the role perfectly, pegging every beat, every emotion, every pulse in a role which will likely define her career for years and years to come. Reportedly, Lawrence waffled on accepting this role because she was fearful of whether she could handle the scrutiny and the spotlight that she knew this role would bring her. Despite a 2010 Oscar nomination and success in the high profile 2011 blockbuster X-Men: First Class, the anonymity that Lawrence still experiences is ready to dissolve in 3…2…1…

Lawrence is so remarkably good here that she overshadows some pretty strong work from many of her fellow cast members. Josh Hutcherson gives a steady, measured turn as Peeta and both Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci are wonderfully eccentric with their mentor and TV star roles, respectively. Lenny Kravitz is a comforting presence on screen and amongst the Tributes, young Amandla Stenberg will likely turn some heads with a strong turn as Rue, the youngest and most intriguing of the remaining members of this particular Tribute class.

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

At times, the film telegraphs a few key moments and some of the impact is lessened by sensing and correctly predicting what is coming. Liam Hemsworth’s portrayal of Gale is merely a placemarker, as he seemingly must bide his time for something more to do in the November 2013 sequel, Catching Fire. While much of the focus is properly placed on Lawrence’s Katniss and, necessarily, Hutcherson’s Peeta, many of the other Tributes are merely caricatures without any identity to speak of. I was rather intrigued by a few of the other and more brutal Tributes. Isabelle Fuhrman’s (Orphan) ninja-star throwing Clove and Alexander Ludwig’s menacing Cato come to mind. And yet, I recognize this all must be properly balanced. If we are laying the foundation for two more books and an ongoing story of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, perhaps the focus is indeed proper in this first endeavor. Nonetheless, I did wonder about the fears, motivations, and degree of bloodlust the other Tributes had. Perhaps those moments sit in that pesky book over there, resting just across the room and out of my reach.

As someone who brought no preconceived notions to The Hunger Games, I am relieved and thrilled to report that Gary Ross has concocted a fantastic film. I simply cannot fathom why any fan of the novels would be upset in any way by what has been done here. Ross and his screenwriting team, which includes source novelist Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, bucks conventions in delivering a refreshingly non-conformist, edgy, and distinctive film, unlike any comparable predecessors.

While the plot and storyline do share notable similarities to elements from The Running Man, The Truman Show, Series 7: The Contenders (please look that film up…) and perhaps even Lord of the Flies, this dystopian horror story is riveting and compelling, reveling in its darker tone and images, and the first truly must-see film of 2012.