‘The Hunger Games’
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Lenny Kravitz, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland
Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity, all involving teens
First, the crucial issue: Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen. Every physical characteristic, every delicately shaded emotional nuance.
It’s as if Lawrence stepped off the pages of Suzanne Collins’ novel.
This comes as no surprise, to those who were mesmerized by Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated performance in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” That unflinching, Ozark mountains girl possessed the same blend of stubborn, often foolish courage and troubled vulnerability, the latter emerging only when she thought nobody was looking.
Lawrence embraces the role of Katniss — one of the early 21st century’s most iconic young female characters, alongside Lisbeth Salandar and Bella Swan — and makes it her own.
Gary Ross — a sharp writer (“Big,” “Dave”) who graduated to writer/director, with “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit” — has made an honorable adaptation of Collins’ enormously popular novel. This screen interpretation is faithful in much the manner of the early Harry Potter films: All the essential plot elements make it to the screen; all the characters are deftly cast, and play their roles persuasively.
Production designer Philip Messina has done a smashing job with the various settings, from the hard-scrabble mining community that Katniss calls home, to the opulent, cruelly ornamental capital of this alternate reality, where decadent, self-absorbed aristocrats gambol without giving a thought to the deprived, desperate 99 percent.
Costume designer Judianna Makovsky does an equally fine job, particularly with the horridly colorful outfits worn by the mindless, oblivious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). And literally dozens of make-up artists and hair stylists work similar miracles, re-creating the hilariously outrageous fashions sported by the patrician jet-set.
The story, set in an undefined future, takes place in a nation dubbed Panem: probably the remnants of United States, or perhaps all of North America. A great civil war took place many years earlier: apparently a populist, “American Spring” uprising against an increasingly repressive government.
The government prevailed. The beaten working class, belonging now to 12 districts defined by the work performed in each — mining, farming, etc. — endures a vicious, unceasing punishment. By way of reminding citizens of the folly of revolt, each district must send one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to participate in the annual Hunger Games: a gladiatorial duel to the death, with but one survivor among the 24 participants.
The grisly bout is televised each year: the ultimate reality show, moderated by on-air personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), simultaneously amusing and sinister, in the manner of Joel Grey’s emcee in “Cabaret.”
Panem’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland, also well cast) has turned this cruel ritual into a supposedly “celebratory” national holiday. The Games’ various emissaries conclude every public announcement with the same salutation — “Happy Hunger Games … and may the odds be ever in your favor” — as if they were wishing citizens a Merry Christmas.
Katniss becomes District 12’s female “tribute” in these, the 74th annual Games. She’s joined by a baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, vastly better here than in the recent “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”). They’re whisked to the capital, trained for the bout, then set loose in an artificial “forest” setting that can be terraformed and transformed, at whim, by behind-the-scenes technicians — assembled, NASA-style, in a cleverly detailed, Mission Control set — who take their orders from master gamesman Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, love the hairstyle).
It’s not bad enough that these teenagers must kill each other; if one attempts to play a waiting game — as Katniss does, utilizing the woodland scouting skills she has honed since childhood, while hunting game for her often starving mother and younger sister — then Crane and his team forcibly move that participant back into the fray, with, say, a few well-placed fireballs.
Anything to appease aristocratic bloodlust.
This film’s one serious flaw — the clumsy passage of time — becomes glaring during Katniss’ training, particularly with respect to her growing relationships with Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), her frequently drunk “mentor,” and himself a survivor of a previous Games; and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the “handler” who molds her into a sympathetic figure. This is essential, since tributes must curry favor with wealthy sponsors who might be inclined to send desperately needed “gifts” during dire moments as the Games proceed.
Collins’ book does an excellent job of both establishing this grim setting, and what led to this fateful moment involving Katniss, and of methodically supplying the back-story essential to each character. Ross often doesn’t bother. It’s not even clear in this film, for example, that Haymitch is a former District 12 champion: a rather important detail.
Collins lets us get to know many of Katniss’ opponents during her week of training; this lends gravitas once everybody winds up in the arena. But Ross rushes her through this segment, as if anxious for the fighting to begin. Ironically, once all 24 teens wind up dueling to the death, this accelerated pacing becomes even worse. Aside from Katniss, Peeta and a stealthy young girl named Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the other challengers are as faceless and nameless as the nondescript teens who get offed in horror film franchises.
Everything happens too quickly, and therefore too superficially. Essential supplementary relationships are merely suggested, if employed at all. Banks’ Effie is no more than a pathetic clown, when in fact her character should be fascinating, for the emotional turmoil that builds as she gets to know — and respect — Katniss.
Half the 24 challengers perish within the first few hours, and we experience little dismay at their deaths, in part because Ross so carefully skirts teen-on-teen violence, in order to preserve this film’s all-essential PG-13 rating. But this is a mistake: By “sanitizing” these murders in such a manner, Ross makes them less shocking, when — for reasons essential to Collins’ overall narrative, and also from the standpoint of our reaction, as viewers — every single one should be appalling.
We have absolutely no time to register revulsion or anything approaching sorrow, as the “contest” narrows down to a handful of survivors … and that’s simply wrong.
Another, smaller, complaint: For some peculiar reason — perhaps to emulate a documentary-style approach — Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern handle the entire first act with a jiggly, hand-held “shaky-cam” style that is flat-out obnoxious. Dizzying, even: hard to endure, and for no good reason. Thankfully, this stops after half an hour.
These issues aside, for the most part Ross delivers a reliable, impeccably mounted adaptation that will resonate with Collins’ many fans. But as was the case with the film versions of Harry Potter’s adventures, I miss the rich nuances present in the book. Ross’ handling of “The Hunger Games” suffers from too much shrinkage; it’s a series of Reader’s Digest-style highlights, in need of the greater depth afforded by a miniseries treatment.
Not the way Hollywood operates, I know … but a fellow can dream, right?
Meanwhile, it’s easy — very, very easy — to fall under this film’s spell, thanks to Lawrence’s sterling work. She is, without question, worth the price of admission; we can hope she’ll be along for the ride, when this series’ second and third books inevitably make their way to the big screen.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com