Happy Hunger Games! In adapting a book to screen, living up to the expectations of readers about how the characters look and act is not the only challenge. If you can make viewers tear up when a scene is moving, or jump when a scene is surprising even though they already know what’s coming, that’s the true mark of a successful adaptation. I was thrilled, touched, and transported by The Hunger Games. I’m glad that these kinds of movies, adapted from imaginative, young adult novels, did not end with the Harry Potter franchise. The Hunger Games is already an extremely popular book trilogy, and with this first movie, I am sure it will become equally if not more of a hit on the big screen.
Adapting the story of Katniss, a young heroine from a dystopian future America where teenagers are selected annually to compete on behalf of their district in combat games to the death, director/co-writer Gary Ross needed to balance being appropriate for the target audience (mostly teens and young adults) against the occasionally vicious and violent events of the storyline. Not only did he pull that off (most of the really violent acts happen off screen or just outside of view), but for a movie that’s approaching 2.5 hours, it’s also paced very well. There didn’t seem to be any lull from the beginning when the Reaping (ceremony where the district “tributes” are selected by lottery) took place, to when Katniss (and her male counterpart, Peeta) are brought to the capital to train and participate in the games, to the ending when only the victors are left standing. Neither the plot nor character development felt rushed or draggy. Again, despite my having already read the story, I felt a suspenseful sense of eagerness regarding scene after scene.
There’s a wide array of characters in this movie, and the performances were pretty good. Interestingly, the marketing department seemed interested in promoting the idea of a love triangle in this movie, but while Peeta and Katniss had quite a number of scenes together, Team Gale (i.e. people rooting for Katniss to choose her close friend and quasi-boyfriend Gale) might have been disappointed at how little screen time their man got. (I’m assuming that his character has more of a role in future instalments — I haven’t read the other novels so I don’t know.) Nevertheless, Liam Hemsworth (brother to Thor star, Chris Hemsworth) did a not-bad job looking soulful, and giving Katniss goodbye hugs. Josh Hutcherson played Peeta, the baker’s son with a wonderfully self-sacrificing crush on Katniss. Despite there being very few breakout male teen stars these days (while Abigail Breslin, Chloe Moretz, and the Fanning sisters Dakota and Elle are just a few from the well-populated female camp), I’ve always found Hutcherson quite likeable on screen — a quality he amps up even more in this movie. He may not have the same matinee-idol qualities of Hemsworth’s Gale, but between his easy laughter and charm, and his romantic, selfless devotion to Katniss, it’s probably pretty clear whose team I’d be on if I needed to buy a t-shirt. Hutcherson does a great job in the role. I’m sure his fan base and career will only expand from here.
There are a number of side characters who are also quite good. Woody Harrelson has the boozy Haymitch down pat. He is no stranger to playing that guy whose first impressions are lacklustre, but you’d be a fool to underestimate him. As mentor/advisor to the tributes from district 12, his advice is what makes all the difference to Katniss and Peeta in the arena. Elizabeth Banks is fine as Effie, the chaperone/human poodle, but her lack of screen time diminishes some of the passive-aggressive bite that she had in the book. Lenny Kravitz might just be playing a variation on his normally-cool self as the stylist Cinna, but I’ve never been much of a fan of his until now. Donald Sutherland is another actor with only a smattering of lines in this movie (again, likely more from him in the sequels) but he’s excellent as the eerily elitist and quietly ruthless President Snow. Last but certainly not least is Jennifer Lawrence, who burst on the scene with her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone and is perfectly cast as Katniss, another strong young woman who’s had to take care of her siblings after her parents checked out. Lawrence also has the kind of beauty that hides beneath a tough girl exterior, but can really shine when it’s meant to. There’s a scene near the beginning when the tributes are presented to the audience and Cinna has put Katniss in a spectacular outfit. Katniss is written to appear breathtaking in that scene, and Lawrence pulls that off no sweat.
If you haven’t read the book, don’t worry, this story was made for the screen. Even though you’ll have missed out on a lot of the thoughts coming from Katniss’s perspective, the numerous action sequences during the Hunger Games themselves really come alive on film and make up for it a bit. After all, the action scenes are half of what this movie brings to the table. (It’s the Hunger Games that are the focus, just ask the title.) From the fight scenes to the explosions, fireballs, running, and arrow shooting (bow and arrow are Katniss’s weapons of choice), alongside the romance and drama, those scenes really bring the thrills. You also shouldn’t have any trouble following the background details as there are many well-integrated moments of exposition disguised as colour-commentary of the games. All in all, this is a great beginning to a franchise that will be a lot of awesome fun, I’m sure. For me, as a fan of the book, this movie would get a 5 out of 5 if it were not for the over-use of disorienting hand-held camera — I get how that puts us into Katniss’s perspective a bit better, but it made my head feel too spinny for my taste. Still, a well-deserved 4.5 out of 5 nonetheless.