In September 2008, the month when Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was first released, another young-adult series—featuring a certain milquetoast “heroine” and her sparkly vampire—still reigned supreme. But for those of us who never gave a flyin’ flip for Team Sparkly or Team Shirtless, and who still mourned the completion of Harry Potter, Hunger Games was the perfect antidote. It was shockingly brutal yet unbelievably (even compulsively) readable. It immediately became a bestseller — mostly driven by incredible word of mouth. So when it was announced that director Gary Ross (Pleansantville, Seabiscuit) was to direct the film adaptation, the intense scrutiny began. But fans, rest assured: the Hunger Games movie is a superbly made, tremendously faithful adaptation that is worth seeing again and again.
For the five of you who have not yet read the book, in the indeterminable future a boy and a girl are selected—or “reaped”—annually from each of 12 districts to fight (to the death) in the televised Hunger Games. After her younger sister Prim is selected, Katniss Everdeen, from District 12, volunteers to take her place. Vowing to return home, Katniss must fight to stay alive and thereby win the 74th Hunger Games.
Jennifer Lawrence is perfect as Katniss. Since the book is narrated mostly through Katniss’ thoughts and actions, she has minimal dialogue. But as she proved in her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, she is an actress that is able to bring tremendous depth to restrained characters. As she says goodbye to her sister and mother, she makes eye contact with her mother and says, “Don’t cry.” Not meant to be consoling, it is an unambiguous demand of her mother to be the adult. Lawrence also excels at the remarkable physicality of the part—making us believe her survival instinct.
As Peeta, Katniss’ district counterpart in the Games, Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) gives an able performance. Hutcherson captures the kindness of Peeta, but his chemistry with Lawrence sometimes feels off. Liam Hemsworth’s Gale, Katniss’s hunting partner and possible paramour, seems a bit flat; however, his character has little to do in the first movie other than provide reaction shots. Lenny Kravitz is adequate as Cinna. Woody Harrelson is predictable as Haymitch. But Elizabeth Banks is remarkable as Effie Trinket. Bedecked in geisha-like makeup and clothing (even her high heels make her shuffle rather than walk), it is hard to keep your eyes off of her.
The film is faithful to, but not limited by, the book. From the gorgeous look—the Grapes of Wrath-inspired District 12, the ebullient, Oz-meets-RuPaul’s Drag Race Capitol—Ross creates a world similar to what I had imagined. Ross also improves upon the more harrowing moments, providing greater tension to the reaping, the final moments before and the devastating beginning to the Games. Additionally, while the latter half of the book remains solely with Katniss in the Games, the movie’s perspective jumps between Katniss and the outside world. At times this is an annoying disruption. But when we are taken into the control room, as the TV show is being made, it is a fascinating distraction.
I wish the characters were made to look a bit more haggard and hungrier. I wish the movie could have delved a little deeper into the relationship between Katniss and Rue. I wish Stanley Tucci would stop playing effete characters. But, this sure-to-be blockbuster is a wonderful adaptation of a wonderful book. It fully captures the strong, central, female character that we admire for her compassion, bravery, skill, and all-around badassery. (Not for her ability to get supernatural creatures to fall in love with her, like Pretty Bird, aka Bella Swan.)
So screw the sparkly vampire and the shirtless werewolf, I’m on Team Katniss.
My Grade: A-