Too often when it comes to big screen adaptations of beloved best-selling novels, we spend the bulk of a review pointing out all of the places the filmmaker went wrong. With The Hunger Games, it’s a distinct pleasure to sing about all of the places the masterful translation went right.
As directed by Gary Ross -- with the clear intention of launching a franchise -- Games brings to life Suzanne Collins’ minimalistic sci-fi survival epic by hewing closely to the author’s illustrative text. Dedicated readers won’t need a plot synopsis, yet newcomers should know the basics. In a futuristic society, war has fractured our society. The “Haves” live in The Capitol, a gaudy, hedonistic Gomorrah nestled somewhere in the Rockies. The “Have Nots” congregate in 12 different Districts, each characterized by their environmental region and populace. And every year, as a means of imposing its will on the Districts, the Capitol forces children chosen by lottery to compete in The Hunger Games, a physical battle to the death.
Enter our hero, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a headstrong and fiercely independent hunter from the impoverished District 12 whose skill with a bow and arrow helps her to provide for her emotionally distraught mother (Paula Malcomson) and younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields). On the day of the Reaping, when contestants are selected to participate in the Games, Katniss hears her sister’s name called by the garish Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) … then boldly steps forward and demands to fight in her sibling’s place.
Ross wins the bulk of his own production battle in the casting department, matching the right talent with Collins’ well-sketched roles. Everything starts with Lawrence, and she is absolutely perfect as Katniss. She is gorgeous enough to flourish during the pageantry stages of the Games, yet naturalistic enough to convince us that this scrappy survivor can do more than persevere in the arena. Early scenes set in the rural District 12 actually call to mind Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated performance as the similarly feisty Ree in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Yet unlike Ree, Katniss is required to undergo several transformations as she struggles to survive the sadistic Truman-Show-meets-The-Running-Man reality competition the Capitol forces on her and the other competitors (known as Tributes). And Lawrence handles each stage with the maturity and versatility we’ve grown to expect from this accomplished performer.
Her dedication spreads throughout the ensemble, which nails each beat as Games marches through Collins’ vivid plot. Josh Hutcherson’s quiet, durable charisma serves him well as Peeta Mellark, District 12’s other Tribute who’s hiding a wealth of secrets. Banks’ gift for broad comedy underlines Effie’s unfortunate grotesqueness, while Woody Harrelson’s hedonistic off-screen reputation brings a needed edge to Haymitch Abernathy, a Games survivor brought in to mentor Katniss and Peeta. And if there could be an Oscar for “Best Scene Stealer,” Stanley Tucci would be the frontrunner after his calculatedly overblown turn as color commentator Caesar Flickerman.
But casting’s only half the story. Ross's decision to film The Hunger Games with docu-drama techniques rite an indie realism for this obvious sci-fi fable that brilliantly plays into the tensions and hostilities of the narrative. I’m convinced this world exists, somewhere, from the ramshackle hovels of District 12 to the dense killing field that is the arena. Solid production values bolster the underlying messages and radical ideas laced through Collins’ work. President Snow (Donald Sutherland, teased for future installments) talks to Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) about giving the population hope, if only so that they can be beaten and crushed back into submission. But Katniss’ efforts to survive, her strength to endure, are traits that audiences of all ages will find themselves celebrating ... even as they support the bloody overthrowing of a corrupt government.
But that’s for later. Readers know the story continues in Catching Fire, and Lionsgate plans to get the proverbial band back together – and soon – once it’s determined that a broad audience buys into the Games and would like to see more. I don’t think that will be a problem. Ross and crew succeed in converting Collins’ best-selling text to the screen, and fans should reward their efforts. When it comes to The Hunger Games, the odds are ever in this film’s favor.