The Hunger Games is an intense, engaging action movie, but to understand anything deeper than a lot of kids running around in the woods trying to kill each other, you need to have read the book. The plot moves along at a lightning pace without pausing to explain anything we see except for the premise for the Hunger Games themselves – just don’t expect any explanation for why they’re called the “Hunger Games,” and not something more…exalted.
This is a violent – but not especially bloody – movie, in which the most shocking element is the premise of children fighting to the death. Virtually the entire movie is shot with an annoying shaky camera, and the action sequences are all quick-cutting blurs that make it difficult to keep track of what’s happening, which may mean (perhaps as a relief to some parents) younger members of the audience might not fully grasp that kids are beating kids to death onscreen.
In the future, the United States has been replaced by a nation called Panem, which is divided into 12 districts ruled by the tyrannical and decadent Capitol, presided over by the cold-blooded President Snow (get it?). As punishment for a failed rebellion some 74 years ago, the Capitol annually forces each district to offer up one boy and one girl between the ages of 12-18, selected randomly, as “tributes” to fight in a televised battle to the death in a virtual-reality gladiatorial arena for the amusement of the Capitol and to remind the subjugated districts who’s in charge.
This year, 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) of dirt-poor District 12 is selected, but her 16-year-old sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers to take her place. The male tribute is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a boy Katniss hardly knows. They are swept off to the Capitol to live a brief two weeks in the lap of luxury as coddled superstars and to train for the arena. But when they are sent inside, they must fight until only one is left standing. Which means either Katniss or Peeta will not be returning to District 12 — perhaps after one kills the other…
You just have to accept the premise of children fighting to the death, because there is no attempt to justify the dehumanization beyond the idea of punishment for the long-ago rebellion. While the blood is kept to a minimum, characters are killed by spears, arrows, knives, poisonous insects and broken necks. The audience will see youngsters lying on the ground with their dead eyes open and some faces smeared with blood.
However, the biggest, most unforgivable problem with the movie is that director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) spends so little time world-building. Viewers get almost no context for what’s going on, and no sense whatsoever about life in Katniss and Peeta’s hometown, the Seam. Sure, it’s muddy, but everybody (especially the gorgeous Katniss) looks healthy and well-fed. In the book, almost everyone is starving, but in the movie there is no indication that anyone is so much as peckish for lunch. The most effective part of the movie is the Capitol, where the citizens wear outrageous fashions and cosmetics that make them seem not just a world apart, but like another species. This emphasize their “otherness” in a debauched, fall-of-Rome kind of way.
While viewers who have read the novel will have a huge advantage in understanding the details of what’s going on, it is not necessary to have read to book to enjoy the movie on its own. The Hunger Games is filled with thrills and more than a few chills, with a charismatic main character and a compelling story of survival. It looks terrific – except for some shockingly poor CGI – and the acting is uniformly excellent.
The standout is the stunning Jennifer Lawrence. She plays Katniss as vulnerable and hard as nails with ease, making it impossible not to root for the scrappy archer. Even when she is simply staring in anger, one can feel the heat of hate from her smoldering glare. Lawrence is especially good at showing Katniss’ weakness: her trembling fear in the final seconds before entering the arena is almost unbearable; her love for her sister intense; and her debilitating grief over a key death in the arena were all visceral and astonishing. This is an actress with extraordinary range and power. Not to mention beauty. Lawrence already was nominated once for an Oscar (for Winter’s Bone), and she definitely is going to win someday (probably more than once). I wouldn’t mind seeing her nominated for this star-making turn.
My other favorite performance came from Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year Old Virgin), who turned the candy-colored Capitol stooge Effie Trinket into a hauntingly sinister character despite her garish clown costume. Hutcherson was mainly earnest, which best describes Peeta; he left the showboating to Lawrence. As floppy-haired Haymitch, the teens’ mentor, Woody Harrelson is a grumpy drunkard who tries to dry out in time to actually help the kids, but Harrelson’s portrait of the former Hunger Games victor’s despair is compelling. Stanley Tucci makes a great impression as TV host Caesar Flickerman, all blue hair, phony smiles and audience-friendly quips. Liam Hemsworth (brother of The Avengers star Chris Hemsworth, and perhaps best-known until now as Miley Cyrus‘ boyfriend) has little to do as Gale, and this jibes with the book, but Hemsworth makes his scenes count as Katniss’ stalwart friend.
President Snow, who has many more scenes in the movie than in the book, is played by Donald Sutherland more as a sort of evil Santa Claus with a gardening habit than a ruthless tyrant. Also, we see a lot of Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) – as a consequence, one of the book’s fan-favorite characters, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz; yes, the musician) and his team of stylists, gets precious little time at all.
Yes, there are changes from the book, most of which simplify the story and make it move faster, and that is to be expected when creating a story for the screen. At over two hours of running time, the movie never seems to drag; in fact it ends too soon. And that’s the mark of a great, entertaining film.