The arrow hits an outer circle of the target in The Hunger Games, an amply faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins' monster young-adult best-seller that could have used a higher blood count in more ways than one. As she did in her breakthrough film Winter's Bone, Jennifer Lawrence anchors this futuristic and politicized elaboration of The Most Dangerous Game with impressive gravity and presence, while director Gary Ross gets enough of what matters in the book up on the screen to satisfy its legions of fans worldwide. This Lionsgate release is being positioned as the hottest property for the teen audience since Twilight, and there's no reason to believe that box office results won't land roughly in that vaunted vicinity.
Published in 2008, The Hunger Games marked the beginning of a trilogy, rounded out by Catching Fire and Mockingjay, which has in toto sold more than 26 million copies, with many more to come now that the film has arrived. A giant opening weekend beginning March 23, which is all but guaranteed, will no doubt trigger a green light for the second big-screen installment in the series, for which the three lead actors are already set.
A speculative fiction piece about a 16-year-old expert hunter who becomes one of 24 teenagers to compete in an annual televised combat spectacle from which only one will emerge alive, Collins' tale rips along on the page with unflagging momentum while generating legitimate suspense and a strong rooting interest in its resourceful heroine. So visually vivid are the book's episodes that you can practically picture a film version while reading it, meaning that it would have been foolish for any filmmaking team to veer far from the source.
With Collins on board as both a co-screenwriter and executive producer, there was little chance of that, so it's more a matter of emphasis and cinematic elan. Ross, Collins and third writer Billy Ray have stressed the fascistic political side of the story, pointing up the micromanaged manipulations of the public and the games themselves while also suggesting that contemporary reality shows and televised competitions differ from this extravaganza only in their lower mortality rate.
As for visual spectacle, there's enough, but along with it, a feeling of being slightly shortchanged; the long shots of gigantic cityscapes, of a fast train gliding silkily through the country, of massive crowds gathered to see this year's gladiators before they set off to kill one another, of the decorative flames emanating from the leads' costumes as the pair is presented to the public for the first time -- all are cut a bit short, as if further exposure would reveal them as one notch below first-rate. On the other hand, the costumes and makeup are a riot of imagination designed to evoke a level of topped-out decadence comparable to that of Nero's Rome or Louis XVI's Paris.
Most noticeable of all, however, is the film's lack of hunting instinct. The novel conveyed a heady sense of blood-scent, of Katniss Everdeen's lifetime of illegal hunting paying off in survival skills that, from the outset, make her the betting favorite to win the 74th edition of the Hunger Games. While present, this critical element is skimmed over onscreen, reducing a sense of the heroine's mental calculations as well as the intensity of her physical challenges and confrontations. One senses that the filmmakers wanted to avoid showing much hunting onscreen, for fear of offending certain sensibilities; stylistically, one longs for the visceral expressiveness of, say, Walter Hill in his prime. It's also clear that the need for a PG-13 rating dictated moderation; a film accurately depicting the events of the book would certainly carry an R.
That said, Hunger Games has such a strong narrative structure, built-in forward movement and compelling central character that it can't go far wrong. From the outset, it's easy to accept a future North America, once decimated by war and now called Panem, divided into 12 districts kept under tight control by an all-powerful central government in the stunningly modernistic Capitol.
Katniss, embodied by Lawrence just as one might imagine her from the novel, lives in far-flung District 12, a poor mining region that can only have been Appalachia in earlier times (indeed, the film was shot in North Carolina). Like all other teenagers, she's annually entered in the Reaping, in which a boy and girl from each district are chosen by lottery to compete in a murderous contest designed both for its political symbolism and public intoxication value. When her beloved little sister's name is shockingly called, Katniss, a dead shot with bow and arrow, volunteers to take her place as a district Tribute, alongside Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a shy, seemingly sweet kid with goo-goo eyes for Katniss. Her male model-like soulmate Gale (Liam Hemsworth) gets left behind.
The remainder of the first hour details the contestants' preparation for the games. This involves cleaning, buffing and accoutering (rather like what happens to the visitors upon arrival in The Wizard of Oz), fight training alongside fellow combatants, abundant eating, tactical advice from oft-inebriated long-ago District 12 winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and a public interview conducted by flamboyant TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci ), a one-man panic so skilled at playing his guests that he gets Peeta to confess his adoration for the unsuspecting Katniss. Decked out with a balloon of backswept blue hair finished off by a giant bun, Tucci has a ball with this fun character, who serves to frame the brutality to come as entertainment by accentuating its personal melodramas.
Once thrown into “the arena,” a topographically varied stretch of wilderness, the Tributes do whatever it takes to survive. Quite a few are butchered at the outset in the mad dash for weapons and supplies. For her part, Katniss hightails it for the interior, where she sleeps out of sight in trees before the “gamemaker,” Seneca (Wes Bentley), has her flushed out by wildfire. The film goes further than the book in illustrating how omnipotent studio controllers can manipulate the action as they wish, in ways they think will create better television and, in the bargain, please their all-powerful president (Donald Sutherland), who will countenance no sign of resistance or rebellion.
And, yet, that is what happens when the games' youngest and sweetest contestant, Rue (Amandla Stenberg), after bonding with Katniss, is abruptly killed. Everything that happens out in the field is captured by countless hidden cameras (Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern shift between lush, steady camerawork for “objective” coverage and a jittery, hand-held style for on-the-spot verite footage), and Rue's death ignites unrest in her working-class district. But this represents a mere prelude to what Katniss pulls off in the ingenious climax, which troubles the already suspicious president and neatly sets the stage for the political turmoil of the sequels.
A crucial area in which the film falls far short of the book is the charade aspect, as Katniss experiences it, of her “romance” with Peeta. Without her interior narration and deliberate play-acting once she allies herself with her fellow District 12 cohort, the gradations of her ambivalence and acceptance are smoothed over to the point of blandness. The survival story retains its vitality, but what lies underneath is stunted.
At the center of things most of the time, Lawrence remains compelling all the way. As in Winter's Bone, she's onscreen alone, or nearly so, a great deal, and she holds one's attention unselfconsciously, without asking for attention or even doing much other than the task at hand. Lawrence is one of those performers the camera loves; her appearance alters in different scenes and shots -- lingering baby fat shows here, she resembles a Cleopatra there -- and she can convey a lot by doing little. An ideal screen actress.
The young men on hand can't measure up to her standards and, while Harrelson has his moments, the combustible Haymitch has been rather cleaned up from the book. Making a decided impression here is Lenny Kravitz, who will probably field more acting offers after his turn as Katniss' charismatic stylist Cinna (quite a few characters are named after Romans).
Production values are ample if not lavish. The soundtrack, a joint venture between composer James Newton Howard and executive music producer T Bone Burnett, features an intriguing blend of regional and atmospheric flavors (the end-title tune from Taylor Swift engages on a first listen), though more musical propulsion would have helped juice things up in the late going.
Opens: Friday, March 23 (Lionsgate)
Production: Color Force, Lionsgate
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg
Director: Gary Ross
Screenwriters: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray' based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Robin Bissell, Suzanne Collins, Louise Rosner-Meyer
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: Philip Messina
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Editors: Stephen Mirrione, Juliette Welfling
Music: James Newton Howard
Executive music producer: T Bone Burnett
Special effects supervisor: Sheena Duggal
PG-13 rating, 142 minutes