Fans of The Hunger Games books can rest easy: the movie does not suck. The film adaptation of the first book of the phenomenally popular young adult series could so easily have gone the way of Twilight and turned out as a syrupy, overly moody teen-angst fest populated by actors who do little more than stare longingly at the camera. With The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross decided that even though his film could coast on the popularity of the books, he would make a really good movie. So good, in fact, that it might actually be better than the book.
The Hunger Games, in a nutshell, is the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old girl in District 12 of Panem, a post-apocalyptic country consisting of an opulent centre called the Capitol, surrounded by 12 subservient districts. In order to keep the people in line, the Capitol forces two teenagers from each district to fight to the death in an annual televised tournament called The Hunger Games, kind of like Survivor, but with pre-pubescent kids hacking each other to death. The backstory and the world of Panem are pretty complicated, but Ross pulls some nifty tricks to smoothly explain it all to audiences who may not be familiar with the novel.
Ross, who also co-wrote the movie, didn’t simply type a direct transcript of the book, which is what makes The Hunger Games movie so successful. He takes plenty of liberties, changing small details and omitting others so that the movie never feels clunky or unnecessarily long (which is a feat, seeing as it is over two hours). The Hunger Games is often compared to the schlocky Japanese cult film Battle Royale, but it comes off more like a holocaust movie, especially in the opening scenes when Katniss is still in District 12. Even though this is dystopian fantasy, it’s about children killing other children and instead of camping it up, Ross gives the source material a much-needed sense of gravity. He also strays from the book’s tendency to only use Katniss’ point of view and expands on some of the political themes that will come into play in future instalments of the trilogy.
Ross’ most important move, though, was hiring great actors. Lawrence was nominated for an Oscar for Winter’s Bone, and while her work here isn’t as staggering, she’s a fierce lead character. Josh Hutcherson (The Kids are All Right) is equally solid as Katniss’ partner Peeta, and teen heartthrob Liam Hemsworth is serviceable as her childhood friend Gale. But as good as the young actors are, it’s the veterans who steal the show. Donald Sutherland is genuinely chilling as President Snow, Stanley Tucci shines in his role as Caesar Flickerman (which is expanded from the books) and Woody Harrelson, who plays drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy, gives the best performance of the film.
Get ready for a youth phenomenon that actually deserves the hype.