When it comes to adapting Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games to film, the big challenge is that the book is so many different things at once. It’s an action thriller, a dystopian exercise, a social commentary on pop culture, a psychological case study of post-traumatic stress, and even a food novel. The movie version doesn’t manage to be all these things, which is disappointing.
Here’s the rub, though: To be a good movie, the film version doesn’t have to do all those things. It only has to be really good at one thing. The movie version of The Hunger Games is really good at one thing: It works as a futuristic science-fiction thriller. If you want further information, read on.
The film version does a marvelously economical job of setting up the book’s complicated premise. The story is set centuries in the future, after American civilization has collapsed and been replaced by a dictatorship called Panem, where the Capitol rules over 12 districts. Each year, the districts are forced to choose one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18. The 24 children are then placed in an arena and forced to fight to the death on live TV until only one remains, the winner receiving a lifetime of riches. Our reluctant heroine is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old girl in District 12 who watches in horror as her 12-year-old sister (Willow Shields) is chosen for the tournament. Katniss immediately volunteers to go in her place, braving the prospect of near-certain death.
Director/co-writer Gary Ross goes far to differentiate this from other fantasy-adventure films pitched at young audiences. Instead of the high visual gloss of the Twilight movies or the heavily shadowed look of the Harry Potter films, Ross goes in for sun-dappled grit and takes full advantage of the rustic setting, District 12 being in the Appalachians and the Hunger Games taking place in a forest. Surprisingly, much of this blockbuster sci-fi thriller looks like a low-budget indie film about rural America such as Get Low or Winter’s Bone. (The latter is surely no accident; Jennifer Lawrence’s character in that movie is remarkably similar to the one she plays here.) The sci-fi trappings gain credibility arising from this setting, as Ross parcels out the special effects judiciously. The Everdeens’ hardscrabble lifestyle and the poverty that surrounds them in District 12 are captured convincingly before the appearance of a giant hovercraft reminds us of what kind of movie this is.
Ross’ low-fi approach doesn’t pay off so well in the middle section that takes place in the Capitol. The ruling city’s luxury and gaudiness don’t come off convincingly, testifying to a certain lack of imagination in the production design. As the novel’s narrator, Katniss has an incredible flair for describing the sounds, smells, and tastes of her surroundings. Cinematographer Tom Stern can’t supply that sense of tactility in this movie’s fantasy world.
Even though Collins co-wrote the script, many other things from her novel are lost here. Katniss’ team of handlers is barely sketched in, and if you haven’t read the books, you won’t know why she instinctively trusts her costume designer (Lenny Kravitz) more than the others. The relationship between Katniss and her fellow District 12 competitor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who suddenly declares his love for her on TV before the tournament starts, doesn’t add as much as it should. The sorest omission here is the Hunger Games’ resemblance to a reality TV show. In the book, the kids are hyperaware that they’re being filmed at all times, and even as they battle for their lives, they make efforts to play to the cameras and the audiences watching them. This stroke of genius is part of what makes the novels feel particularly of our moment, as well as a potentially rich source of intellectual grist to go along with the movie’s thrills. The filmmakers pretty much ignore it.
Still, Lawrence’s dexterous, deeply felt performance keeps this movie grounded during the middle section when it threatens to go off track. Collins’ diabolically clever sense of plot throws new developments at you from unexpected angles, and Ross shows himself an expert at gradually tightening the screws of suspense, especially the early sequences leading up to the ceremony where the kids are chosen. I could have done with more violence than the PG-13 rating allows for, but the brutality of the Hunger Games will still come through for the benefit of the preteen audiences here. All this does more than prevent you from checking your watch through the 142-minute running time. It adds up to an intelligent, reasonably well-made first installment that leaves us primed for Katniss’ future adventures.
The Hunger Games
Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. Directed by Gary Ross. Written by Suzanne Collins, Gary Ross, and Billy Ray, based on Collins’ novel. Rated PG-13.