It’s a rare occasion when a film adaptation surpasses the quality of the novel it’s based on. It’s even rarer when said adaptation is based on something as monumentally popular as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight saga or now, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian young adult fiction trilogy The Hunger Games. If this is where you’re looking for my endorsement of The Hunger Games as one of those rare adaptations that surpasses its source material, you’re out of luck, friend-O. Even though I can’t pinpoint whether Gary Ross’ version of Collins’ book is a tepid or solid adaption, this enjoyable yet far from completely satisfying film has enough working in its favor for encourage a nodding approval. It’s not like my approval will mean anything to the film’s frenzied fanbase whose passion will undoubtedly position the film as the heir apparent to the aforementioned franchises.
For the fellow uninitiated, The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian society where reality TV is king, TV personalities are egoistic whack jobs, corporations run everything and the Kardashians have one of the most popular shows on the planet. Kidding aside, The Hunger Games takes place in a totalitarian society dubbed Panem that arose after an unnamed war wiped out most of North America. Panem is comprised of a Gotham-like central area dubbed The Capitol and 12 surrounding impoverished districts that take the shape of every science fiction ghetto you may have seen before. On the other end of the spectrum, The Capitol is a carnival of colors where denizens take their fashion cues from The Fifth Element, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, and their entertainment ideas from Battle Royale and The Truman Show among others. To keep the 12 rebel districts in line, the government of Panem hosts the eponymous competition, a gladiator-style Olympic Games of sorts, in which two children aged 12-18 (one male, one female) are randomly selected from each district to fight to the death until there is only one person left. The winner goes on to receive one lousy tiara, a couple of cool outfits and a lifetime supply of therapy sessions.
After her hopelessly brittle younger sister Prim gets picked to represent her impoverished Ozark-esque District 12, headstrong 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her place, hoping to get a piece of the action on those sweet winner benefits. After a couple of tearful goodbyes with the cast of Winter’s Bone, it’s off to the Capitol where she, along with fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are dolled up for the Capitol crowds by a personal team of assistants including Lenny Kravitz who underplays as a hairdresser named Cinna, Elizabeth Banks (resembling a garish Barbie hooker) who overplays as promoter Effie Trinket, and Woody Harrelson, who plays it just right as alcoholic trainer Haymitch Abernathy – a previous Hunger Games winner. Also nailing it is the great Stanley Tucci who chews the scenery, the sets, and everything but Lawrence as talk show host Caesar Flickerman. Coming off as a cross between a Japanese game show host, a mutated Oompa Loompa and Jerry Springer, Tucci’s Flickerman naturally gets the film’s memorable moments.
With the host of literally colorful characters, it’s unsurprising that this character-heavy lead-up to the tournament is the more endearing half of the film. The actual tournament, which takes up the bulk of the second half of the film’s 142-minute runtime, while far from inept, is mostly a mash-up of poorly-executed Die Hard-style thrills, explosions, and booby traps where Katniss predictably outwits a cackle of meatheads, blondes and CGI monsters while also rescuing that weakling Peeta whose answer to surviving in the wild seems to be limited to disguising himself as a rock! While Ross and company do try, it’s evident that the director of Lassie and Mr. Baseball isn’t adept at shooting action and thrills.
Not helping matters one bit is the piss-poor editing or the abhorring cinematography by frequent Clint Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern. Seriously, who hires Clint Eastwood’s cinematographer to film an action movie? A colorful one at that! You want death, Stern’s your man! Thrills, no. Ignoring Stern’s work, there’s something about a white-washed, blood-free murder contest that feels off. If only Lionsgate were a little more vested in the grittiness than the flood of money to their bank accounts, we could have had a leaner, meaner film. Alas, our dystopia dictates otherwise.
Thankfully Lionsgate did get the most important element of the film right – the casting of Katniss. As the series’ leggy archer heroine, Lawrence simply owns it! She brings gravitas to the role and keeps us transfixed by Katniss, even as the eccentric characters around her get the louder, showier stuff. Ever since her Oscar-nominated breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence’s star has been rising in rank, and the enormous popularity of these films only confirm my belief that she’s guaranteed to shoot through the stratosphere of superstardom.
The Hunger Games is a mostly agreeable big-screen version of Suzanne Collins’ insanely popular trilogy. While rabid fans of the series are bound to be satisfied, more acute moviegoers may find themselves disappointed by the workman-like nature to the proceedings. Though production values are unsurprisingly high, some of the film’s vital craft elements – namely the editing, cinematography, and action – decaffeinate the film from being a truly stirring and memorable experience. Despite this, the film does benefit from strong performances, led by Lawrence whose debut to millions of moviegoers worldwide is bound to be the true lasting legacy of this sure-to-be-enormous series.
Running time: 142 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.