So, in case you hadn’t heard, a little movie called The Hunger Games was released this week. Starring soon to be superstar Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (aka the biggest literary hero since Harry Potter) and what is soon to become the highest-grossing film with a sole female protagonist, Games is a thrilling success in almost every respect.
To save room, I’m going to refrain from giving a plot description in this review. Suffice it to say that from the opening moments the film is intense, engrossing the audience in the world and vivid characters it brings to life, telling the story of a twelve districts forced to offer up two of their children each year in a fight to the death called the Hunger Games, especially focusing on Katniss, a girl hoping to survive after she volunteers to participate in order to save her sister’s life. The book, trickier to adapt than many due to its limited narrative perspective has energetically been brought to the screen with only a few minor tweaks to speak of. While it fails to capture some of the book’s stronger moments, including what should have been an especially terrifying twist near the finale, the heart of the novel is still thankfully intact.
Especially impressive onscreen is the character of Katniss, performed with exquisite strength, grace, grit, and beauty by Lawrence. A multifaceted performance trumping even her fantastic and Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone this is Lawrence’s finest moment to date and brings the hope of a tremendous career going forward. As “the girl on fire”, Lawrence achieves something that Daniel Radcliffe was never able to as “the boy who lived”: authenticity, charisma, and a performance that would have become iconic without nearly a thousand pages and fanboy acclaim behind it.
While the film itself may never quite live up to the performance at its core, it is still mostly strong across the board. The imagery on display here for lack of a better word is awe-inspiring, the costumes and makeup utterly surreal in the capitol and entirely encrusted in dirt, perspiration, and filth in the district twelve bookends of the film. Building an entire country rather than just one location and a diverse group of people instead of just one character, this film is ugly and beautiful simultaneously.
Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) has an equally interesting vision for the film, choosing to disorient the viewer by filming with a shaky-cam style, making the audience like Katniss, where they will never be quite able to keep up with everything going on around them. Also intriguing, Ross focuses a lot of attention on the people behind the scenes of the games, bringing to mind The Truman Show in many key moments and giving the audience a perspective solely lacking in the book. Making a movie that could have been all about the gruesome kills that were so prominent in the book, Ross pulls away just enough to make it more about character than spectacle. Although this is an admirable approach, it at times does make some of the most intense moments in the book seem watered down or neutered in the film version. The opening moments of the games seem especially disappointing and too short, although filled with danger, perhaps not quite instilling the panic into the audience that it should have.
While there are certain scenes that may not live up to fan expectations most of the key character moments shine through, thanks in large part to a brilliant ensemble and a director that obviously knows how to get the best from his cast. Stanley Tucci is thrilling as Caesar Flickman, instantly calling Ryan Seacrest to mind in his phoniness and yet somehow still charming bravado. Impressive too in key supporting roles are the ever reliable Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and especially Donald Sutherland, who is chilling as President Snow. And, while Katinis’s two potential love interests (Josh Hutcherson as Peeta and Liam Hemsworth as Gale) aren’t as good as the rest of the ensemble at least they do more than sparkle.
All in all, The Hunger Games is an impressive achievement and deserves the success it is enjoying. While there are qualms to be had with this adaption, this is the first really exciting movie of the year and is a very solid beginning to what will hopefully become known as a great trilogy. See it and may the odds ever be in your favor.