The Hunger Games
The Odds are in its Favor

Based on the popular novel by Suzanne Collins—the first in a series of three—The Hunger Games has been referred to as both “the next Harry Potter” and “the next Twilight.”  Although the latter certainly has its share of devoted fans, I’d wager that the odds are decidedly in favor of most people—this writer included—hoping it turns out to be more like the former, at least in terms of its cinematic quality.  Fortunately, I am happy to report that that is the case, as director Gary Ross and company have done a fine job of translating the novel to the screen.

The story takes place in a future that is ruled over by a central Capitol whose residents lap it up in fanciful luxury, while the grunt work is handled by the poverty-stricken outlying districts.  At some point, these districts rose up and revolted, but were held back by the powerful Capitol.  As a reminder of their insolence, each year the districts must each offer up two tributes—a boy and a girl—to participate in The Hunger Games, a brutal competition in which the twenty-four chosen tributes must fight to the death, until there is only one left standing.  This grotesque competition is broadcast throughout the districts, where the family members of those involved must watch their loved ones fight for survival.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger GamesOur hero is Katniss Everdeen, from district twelve.  When her younger sister’s name is drawn, Katniss volunteers as tribute.  Quickly, her and her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark, are whisked off to the capital where they are treated like royalty, trained by their mentor—a drunken former winner from their district—and put on display with the help of their team of stylists.  Their goal is to win over potential sponsors, the rich folk with the power to provide them with aid when they most need it.  When the games begin, the tributes are let loose in the center of the arena where dozens of deadly weapons have been left for their use.  And so the massacre begins.

The movie starts out rather awkwardly.  There is a brief opening scene between master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman and game master Seneca Crane that doesn’t even need to be in the movie, let alone at the very beginning.  From there, the movie introduces us to life in District 12.  This is important, but for some reason it is presented with camerawork that is so shaky, one wonders if the camera operator had a few too many while everyone else was setting up and then literally stumbled through his b-roll footage.

The movie does then begin to find its feet as we are introduced to Katniss and her hunting partner Gale Hawthorne.  It then moves steadily through the selection process and the excitement at the Capitol.  Not much was cut out from the book, but most of what was is from these first two segments, which is the right move, saving most of the focus for the actual games themselves.  With few exceptions—that I could remember, at least—the action in the arena rarely strays from its source.  It’s impressive, too, especially the fireball sequence that proves to be the most exciting moment in the movie.

I do question some of the choices made by Ross and his screenwriters—that awkward opening scene, some questionable editing, and the fact that they feel they need Stanley Tucci to explain certain things to the audience—but what they do get absolutely right is the tone.  The feel of the movie perfectly replicates the feel of the book.

One of the biggest questions leading up to the movie’s release was how they would be able to properly portray the novel’s brutal violence—particularly the initial bloodbath at the cornucopia—while still maintaining a teen-friendly PG-13 rating.  To accomplish this, Ross and company actually borrow directly from the master, using the same techniques that Alfred Hitchcock used to make the shower scene in Psycho seem more violent than it actually was.  Although we see the swinging of the weapons and we see the blood splatter that results, we aren’t shown the actual violence—knives going into bodies, swords cutting off limbs—as that is all kept off-screen.  This technique successfully makes the sequence feel very violent, while maintaining a teen-friendly rating.

The other highly debated topic leading up to the movie’s release was the casting, and for the most part I felt the actors did a fantastic job.  Jennifer Lawrence is a fine young actress and it is easy to see that she has the ability to carry this franchise on her back.  As for her two possible suitors, Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, gets better as the movie goes along, while Liam Hemsworth doesn’t get enough screentime in this chapter to see how he will ultimately handle Gale.  The same can be said for Donald Sutherland, whom I look forward to seeing as President Snow in the inevitable sequels. Meanwhile, Stanley Tucci is terrific as Flickerman, Elizabeth Banks is unrecognizable as Effie Trinket, I hoped for more from Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, and Wes Bentley delivers the movie’s only subpar performance as Crane.

Although the film version of The Hunger Games is not mind-blowing, the fact that it nails the feel of the novel, keeps most of it intact, and presents it in an entertaining fashion, leads me to believe that the fans will not be disappointed.  I know I wasn’t.

The Hunger Games is rated PG-13 for “intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.”  It is a very violent story, but much of it is kept off-screen.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Hunger Games.