The first installment, based on the best-selling trilogy, is just as dark — and almost as great — as the book
Watching The Hunger Games, you get the sense that the Twilight franchise belongs to a different, more frivolous generation. The films share the distinction of being based on hugely successful young adult books featuring female protagonists and love triangles, but the similarity ends there. The funny thing is, the adaptations of Stephenie Meyer's sexless vampire novels actually did the author a favor by breathing life into her clumsy prose, whereas Hunger Games director and cowriter Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) has such excellent source material in Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy that his film could be seen as primarily faithful — it's a darkly imaginative experience because what else could it be? This is a serious story about children forced to fight to the death in a televised competition that plays out like a twisted Olympics. Don't let the letters YA fool you.
Even though Collins (who cowrote the screenplay) tries to lighten the mood with a love story, there's no escaping the central brutality. Rumor had it the film softened some of the violence for a PG-13 rating, but it hardly seems like it, and no one is going to complain that the scenes of a young boy getting knifed in the back or a beloved character taking an arrow to the stomach needed to be more graphic. (The former happens quickly; the latter is tastefully handled, though harder to watch.)
For the uninitiated, the series takes place after an apocalyptic event destroyed North America, leaving the nation of Panem — a wealthy capitol surrounded by destitute districts — in its stead. The Hunger Games are punishment for the rebellion of the 13th district, and in each of the 74 ensuing years, a boy and girl from the remaining 12 are selected as Tributes via a lottery ominously referred to as the Reaping, with the odds stacked against poorer children who have submitted their names multiple times in exchange for food.
When her little sister is picked to represent District 12, a coal-mining region rendered in shades of gray and muted blue that wildly contrast with the Capitol's gaudiness, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers instead, joining a local boy who once helped her feed her family (Peeta Mellark, played by The Kids Are All Right's Josh Hutcherson). Her hunting buddy Gale (former Miley Cyrus BF Liam Hemsworth) chastises those of us who have ever relished the humiliation and demise of reality television personalities: "It's sick. What if everyone stopped watching?" But the only defiance Katniss and Peeta can count on is a subdued one: In an effectively somber scene, the Capitol's vapid emissary and Tribute chaperone, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), encourages the crowd to clap for the chosen pair, but they instead raise their hands in a silent, three-fingered salute.
Lawrence practically auditioned for the role of Katniss in 2010's Winter's Bone, for which she earned an Oscar nomination playing the part of the stoic older sister who will do whatever it takes to care for her siblings in the absence of a parental figure. Her sturdiness makes her believable as a superior huntress, and her gravity gives her a natural beauty that's almost more remarkable than the fussier one, all dressed up as the Girl on Fire for the pageantry of the opening ceremonies. Obviously, she is essential to the film — whereas Kristen Stewart lent a more likable awkwardness to Twilight's pitiful Bella, Lawrence fully inhabits the character as she was written, and it's impossible to imagine the role going to anyone else.
Other casting choices are iffier. Hutcherson actually makes for a less effete Peeta, but Hemsworth is a disappointment as Gale, whom I pictured looking like Balthazar Getty circa Lord of the Flies, not a beefed-up pretty boy. Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta's alcoholic mentor, Haymitch, is decent, and definitely less drunk than the book calls for, but John C. Reilly, a rumored contender, would have been even better. Lenny Kravitz gives a somewhat bland performance as Cinna, Katniss's primary stylist and costume designer, and seemingly the only Capitol citizen with a conscience. Finally, why wasn't Cillian Murphy cast as President Snow? One can't object to Donald Sutherland being in a movie, but the Capitol is a plastic surgery mecca. Presumably, Snow doesn't age, gracefully or otherwise, and Murphy's chilly blue eyes and unusually plump lips would have been appropriately menacing.
Yet in so many other ways, the film unfolds as expected. The Capitol is Candyland meets Emerald City, and its privileged inhabitants are exactly as you imagined: Taller Munchkins, or '90s-era club kids, with Technicolor hair and flamboyant outfits. When the action moves to the arena, where the Tributes are deposited in a clearing and must either battle it out for supplies at the imposing cornucopia or else take to the forest and hope to survive, one of the few flourishes here includes a behind-the-scenes look at the game-making. Ross shows Seneca Crane (American Beauty's Wes Bentley) and his henchmen manipulating the arena, Minority Report style, swiping in fireballs and rabid dogs to shake the Tributes out of hiding, which breaks up the somewhat solitary story of Katniss's survival. And Lawrence is so persuasive a presence as she nimbly navigates the arena that she makes any lull more bearable. Watching her shift from the guarded warrior who treats Peeta like a foe to the savvy competitor who realizes that their supposed love story will win favor with the audience is a way more satisfying evolution than the one from human to vampire, although it's harder to detect when her feelings genuinely change. I found myself wondering if perhaps their romance could have been slightly embellished for the sake of chemistry, which has to endure throughout the next three movies (the final installment will be divided in half).
Like the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men or, more recently, David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games is dogged in its accuracy, so audiences familiar with the story could find the 140-minute running time wearying. On the other hand, that the narrative can be visualized with or without the help of the big screen is a reminder of just how incredibly vivid Collins's book is and, yeah, how pleasurable reading can be.