Yes, I read the books, and, no, I’m not a teen. Glad we got that out of the way.
“The Hunger Games” is the Internet buzz machine film adaptation of the wildly popular young adult book by Suzanne Collins. This is the first book/movie in what is sure to be a massively successful trilogy — the books have already been released to tremendous sales, and the debut film is currently setting records at the box office.
The story is set in a dystopian future United States that has been wrecked by internal strife and is now controlled in a police state where the ruling class asserts their dominance by having children from the formerly rebellious districts compete in an annual fight to the death. The yearly spectacle is called The Hunger Games, and it is a reality show blending of gladiator matches, “Star Search,” and “Jersey Shore,” as its seen by its rich viewers as engaging entertainment, not depraved torture.
The movie’s creators were in the rare position of being able to assume that most of the movie’s audience would be familiar with the basic story, due both to the book’s outstanding sales and pre-release word-of-mouth, but they didn’t rely on this assumption and the final product stands alone as an accessible and engaging story from the opening frame onward.
Director Gary Ross’ decision to use a more naturalistic, handheld camera style may jostle some viewers, but it saved the production from being overdone and glamorized. It’s a surprisingly quiet film that allows the viewer to really get to know Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the girl from the poorest of the Districts who volunteers for The Hunger Games to save her sister from going.
Once she’s in the arena where the games take place, it’s a straight 30 minutes of solid entertainment before you even remember you’re watching a movie. Katniss runs, climbs, dodges, and escapes and we agonize with her suffering and celebrate her tiny successes. When you do get distracted and pulled out of the story by weak writing or awkward performances it is painful, but most of the cringe-worthy moments (and there weren’t very many of them) came directly out of the book and involved the requisite romance that drives both the real audience and the fictionalized viewers of the movie who care deeply about Katniss and her feelings for Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy from her District in the games.
Although both the movie and the book are aimed at a younger audience, they are, by nature, very violent. In the movie, the violence is not gratuitous nor is it ignored. Like many decisions by Ross and his team, they simply made an excellent choice on how they handled the killings, which was to show it to the point that it felt real and, as violence should seem, disturbing.
What was equally troubling, though, was the life-imitating-art conviction that we as real-life viewers, fascinated by a story about children killing each other for the sake of entertainment, were not much better than the made-up members of the Capital that put on The Hunger Games. That conviction is certainly intentional, as the story clearly mocks our culture’s obsession with celebrities.
Overall, the movie isn’t perfect, but I don’t think it was ever trying to be. Where it succeeds, though, is in its respect to both the uniqueness of the story and the opportunities for telling it that the medium of film allows. The costumes are memorable, the sound design is immersive, and the acting performances – at least those of Lawrence, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and Elizabeth Banks – are both charming and unaffected.
It’s a powerfully realized and expertly-executed movie based on a book that, while flawed, is almost impossible to put down. The best compliment I can pay to any adapted movie is to say it was better than the original source material, and the “The Hunger Games” deserves that rare honor.