“In two weeks, 23 of you will be dead.”
One of the many uncomfortable things about watching The Hunger Games is that moment when you realize, “I’m watching The Hunger Games.” The story may be fictional, but it’s nonetheless almost physically unsettling to see children on the verge of killing or being killed.
For the five people who haven’t heard of Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular dystopian series of novels, the Hunger Games are annual contests in which 24 young people ages 12 to 18 must battle to the death until only one is left standing. Worse, it’s all packaged as a festive reality show by the wealthy Capitol, which rules the nation of Panem. A few critics have knocked the film version for not having the guts to look this forced savagery in the eye, but I disagree with that assessment. Even the shaky-cam approach can’t soften those first moments in the arena when you see it dawning on these kids, some of them heartbreakingly small, that a violent death is possibly just seconds away.
Being entertained by a movie about killing as entertainment is, well, complicated. But as a movie-going experience, The Hunger Games is a very good one. A single feature film can’t include all the elements that made the book such a fantastic read, and some hardcore fans (I consider myself one) might be displeased by some of the shortcuts and slight deviations. However, most of the important things remain intact. The movie has many gripping moments and is respectful of the source material.
Jennifer Lawrence nails the role of the reluctant heroine Katniss, giving her the stoicism and contained vulnerability that the role demands. She offers herself up as a “tribute” to save her little sister, whose name is called in the grim lottery (the “reaping”) that determines the games’ contestants — one boy and one girl from each district. The movie captures the gray, thoroughly depressing aura of the districts, and the oppression is palpable on reaping day. Even when she’s all dolled up for the pre-Games festivities, a combination of the Olympics opening ceremonies and the Miss America pageant, Lawrence comes across as a relatable young woman.
The reaping also introduces us to her male counterpart, Peeta (Team Peeta!), sympathetically played by Josh Hutcherson. Realistic about his chances, Peeta still has the presence of mind to play to the crowd in the Capitol so that he can stay alive as long as possible, and maybe help Katniss do the same. Hutcherson makes Peeta instantly likeable even if, as in the book, his intentions aren’t immediately clear.
If the movie has a noteworthy weakness, it’s that there isn’t enough time to develop Katniss and Peeta’s relationship, which was such a compelling part of the book. Their survival depends not only on their prowess in the Games, but their ability to be believable as star-crossed lovers from the same district. The movie doesn’t deal much with the question that defined their partnership in the novel: Just how real are their feelings? Gale, Katniss’ hunting partner and more-than-a-friend back home, has precious little screen time. What’s most important, though, is that the film stays true to Collins’ characterization of Katniss as a woman of action who can take care of herself.
The movie brings to vivid life the disgusting, opulent circus surrounding the Games. The Capitol is filled with people who decorate themselves like Christmas trees and view the spectacle as great fun. Donald Sutherland oozes evil as President Snow, and Elizabeth Banks personifies the clueless frivolity of the Capitol citizenry in her role as Effie, Katniss and Peeta’s cloying escort. But the real action takes place in the woods of the arena, crawling with hidden peril, short-lived alliances and senseless tragedy. Even if you know how the story ends, the sprint to the conclusion is intense, frightening and often just plain sad.
This is a film that should (mostly) satisfy the book’s fans, and it surely will inspire more than a few people who are new to the party to grab the books and get up to speed for the sequel, Catching Fire. See you at the multiplex! Grade: B+