The Hunger Games: Film Review
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.