Young people, selected by lottery, slaughter one another with kill-or-be-killed desperation in The Hunger Games. The savagery is a yearly ritual mandated by the tyrannical regime of Panem, a broken nation built, after a terrible war, on the futuristic ruins of North America. It’s also broadcast on live TV, a national media event. This horrific vision of a near future in which teenagers are in peril is sickening, but the individual heroism of some who fight is also thrilling, as millions of readers can attest: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is a literary sensation. The good news now coming out of Panem, both for those who already know just how brutal the Games become and those who are new to the dystopian tale, is that the movie adaptation knows how to play too.
This Hunger Games is a muscular, honorable, unflinching translation of Collins’ vision. It’s brutal where it needs to be, particularly when children fight and bleed. It conveys both the miseries of the oppressed, represented by the poorly fed and clothed citizens of Panem’s 12 suffering districts, and the rotted values of the oppressors, evident in the gaudy decadence of those who live in the Capitol. Best of all, the movie effectively showcases the allure of the story’s remarkable, kick-ass 16-year-old heroine, Katniss Everdeen.
Katniss — who volunteers to fight in place of her sister as one of District 12’s two unfortunate ”tributes” when the little girl is chosen — is the heart and soul of the story, one of those feisty female protagonists pitched to the YA market but appealing to adults as well. Katniss is happiest when she’s hunting food for her family with the bow-and-arrow precision that is her specialty. She’s a tomboy with a trademark brunet braid down her back, and she’s a graceful young woman — strong, self-possessed, and unaware of her own beauty, whether dressed like a backwoods scout or dolled up for pageant display in gorgeous gowns. And Jennifer Lawrence, previously dressed as a backwoods scout in her galvanizing breakout, Winter’s Bone, is, in her gravity, her intensity, and her own unmannered beauty, about as impressive a Hollywood incarnation of Katniss as one could ever imagine. Much of Katniss’ experience throughout the Games — as she improvises with an ingenuity far beyond the scope of any TV Survivor contestant — is interior, silent. Lawrence is expressive in her stillness, and moves with athletic confidence.
Fans of the book and moviegoers coming to the story fresh may reach different conclusions about the effectiveness of Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, the baker’s son from District 12 who is at once Katniss’ competitor and the boy who loves her. In the book, interesting edges rough up his niceness; he’s not quite so easy to peg. But to these eyes, on screen he’s been sanded down to a generic sensitive good guy, so much so that it’s difficult to understand why Katniss is prickly around him. Meanwhile, so little is seen of Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss’ soul mate/fellow hunter, in this first episode that the uninitiated might not pay attention to the third angle of the story’s romantic triangle — about the only element this high-quality pop culture phenomenon has in common with the swoons of Twilight.
Director Gary Ross does a tight job of establishing the future-meets-1984 vibe in Panem: the slog of daily life, the hopelessness that dulls the citizens, the fear that returns each year at the Hunger Games lottery known as the Reaping. Aided by outré costumes from designer Judianna Makovsky, he also goes to town in the Capitol sequences. Elizabeth Banks as Effie the PR handler, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch the mentor, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna the stylist, Stanley Tucci as Caesar the unctuous TV interviewer — they’re all reasonable facsimiles of what’s on the page, and fabulous oddities for those who are just meeting them. And if the depiction of the death-by-death progress of the Games themselves, as Katniss struggles mightily to save her own life on behalf of her sister, doesn’t match the psychological tension on the page, well, thems may be the rules of the adaptation game. The movie shows how, but the book shows why. A?