Courtesy of LIONSGATE FILMS
It may be surprising that a book as dark as “The Hunger Games” became such a young adult sensation. Like the book, the film tells the story of a dystopian nation where the Capitol rules over 12 districts of varying degrees of poverty, forcing them to give one boy and one girl between ages 12 and 18 as “tribute” to compete in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death broadcast live on TV.
But anyone who’s read the book will know the real draws are its thrilling story and complex characters, and the movie manages an edited but faithful translation with just a few flaws.
The film stars Jennifer Lawrence (“X-Men: First Class”) as Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old from the dirt-poor District 12, rendered as a combination of Depression-era coal mining town and concentration camp.
A practiced hunter with her longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, “The Last Song”), Katniss takes care of her sister Prim (Willow Shields) and their mother (Paula Malcomson, “The Green Mile”) through not-so-legal means. When Prim is selected as tribute, Katniss desperately volunteers to take her place. Along with male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”), she travels to the opulent, Tim Burton-esque Capitol and receives training from the last Hunger Games winner from her district, the half-drunk, half-brilliant Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, “Zombieland”).
Though the film cartoonishly exaggerates the world of the Capitol enthralled by the Games, there are enough parallels to the modern reality-TV culture to warrant discomfort.
Before the Games begin, the tributes parade about in different gaudy costumes like a Bravo fashion show, being interviewed by the flamboyant host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, “The Lovely Bones”). In the arena, the most brutal kills, the close escapes, and romance between Katniss and Peeta thrill the audiences, as if everyone were action movie heroes rather than teenagers.
Lawrence carries the film as Katniss, giving a determined, go-for-broke performance. While Lawrence remains captivating throughout the film, Hutcherson unfortunately doesn’t pull off the same degree of cunning to match his charm.
The film bravely adds some elements to the plot that work out surprisingly well.
Rather than staying glued to Katniss like the book, the audience gets a look at events outside the arena. President Snow (Donald Sutherland, “Pride and Prejudice”) and “gamemaker” Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, “American Beauty”) play greater roles as the villains acutely aware of how the popularity of Katniss and Peeta could endanger the Capitol.
A rebellion also begins to stir in another district sparked by events in the arena, though the addition is as rushed and sanitized as the rest of the film.
Maintaining a PG-13 rating, “The Hunger Games” presents less gore than one would expect in a movie about adolescents murdering each other. But the Games are no less harrowing for it, substituting psychological horror for cheap scares and blood.
The Career Tributes display sadistic pleasure in the bloodshed, as much schoolyard bullies as merciless butchers, snapping necks and tearing apart their younger competition without hesitation.
Though occasionally rushed and blatantly sanitized, “The Hunger Games” maintains all of the book’s thrills, contrasting impoverished misery with excessive opulence and unspeakable horrors with hope and romance.
The movie takes some risks successfully, and it disappointingly shies away from others. But it succeeds brilliantly in depicting the best and the worst of what humanity is capable of.