Well Hunger Games fans, the wait is finally over. I’m sure you guys have a thousand questions about the movie version of the first book in your favorite trilogy: Are they going to play up the violence or go all PG on us? Will they get the look of The Capitol and its overly pampered citizens right? Can Jennifer Lawrence sing? Can Lenny Kravitz act?
If you’ve been obsessing over these little details for months, don’t worry: so was director Gary Ross. The man clearly knew that if he pissed off the millions of fans of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, his Hollywood career would be as good as over. Luckily for him, Ross has managed to not only do the novel justice by creating one of the better book-to-film adaptations in recent memory, but has even been able to take the source material and make it his own, mostly for the better.
If you haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ novel, you’re missing out on something special. But for those unfortunate few, here’s what you’re getting into: The Hunger Games takes place in Panem, an unrecognizable futuristic United States that has been ravaged by war. It consists of twelve districts (formerly 13) in control of The Capitol, a symbol of power, cruelty and excess. To remind the districts of their place, The Capitol holds a yearly tournament called The Hunger Games, which involves 24 12-18-year-old boys and girls fighting to the death for the amusement of Panem.
Enter District 12 native Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, my new favorite actress). She has lived a tough life, with only her sister Prim and hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth, aka Mr. Miley Cyrus) to help her through it. Through a tragic series of events, Katniss is forced to volunteer to participate in the 74th Hunger Games, along with fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, sweet yet useless; the perfect Peeta). They get to see The Capitol for the first time and indulge in its ridiculous culture before being thrust into the arena to fight for their lives.
First and foremost, Lawrence IS Katniss. Since the novels were told entirely from her perspective, her characterization was by far the most important. Thank god for Lawrence; she hit every Katniss beat she had to. Hissing at Buttercup (stupid cat). Being sweet with Prim and Rue (the lullaby scene in the arena was legitimately heartbreaking). Going from tough to vulnerable in the blink of an eye. Remember this performance come Oscar Watch 2013.
Now on to the film’s look, which gets Collins’ world just about right. District 12 is appropriately grimy and its people dirty and downtrodden. The Capitol is insanely decadent and its citizens ludicrously made-up and dressed, especially Effie Trinket (a hilariously chipper Elizabeth Banks). The arena looks idyllic, until you realize it’s a constantly changing death trap. If I had one complaint, it would be with Katniss’ “Girl On Fire” costumes. They didn’t exactly stun or even smolder the way something designed by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, cool and convincing) should.
Once Katniss, Peeta and the rest of the tributes entered the arena, just like in the book, I was hooked. Everything from the novel is here, but the way it’s filmed is more dynamic than anything you can picture while reading. The initial bloodbath is particularly awesome – you’ll see why. Besides the action, the budding relationship between Katniss and Peeta is appropriately awkward, as fans of the novel know that one of them may be doing it more for the cameras than out of love.
Speaking of the cameras, Ross used them in a way the book couldn’t. Because Katniss was constantly being filmed in the arena, Ross made the brilliant decision to shift the perspective to people watching her on screen. You get to see their alcoholic mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, who always seems drunk anyway) work to get sponsors to pay for supplies for the kids in the arena, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley sporting the facial hair of the year) plan out different ways to kill the tributes, and Gale react to star-crossed lover kisses.
Not every decision worked out as well as that one. Increasing President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) screen time just reminded me how lame and unintimidating of a villain he is. Just like in the book, the seemingly endless time it takes Katniss to heal a dying Peeta dragged a bit. And the final battle in the arena that involved some CG animals is missing a certain personal touch (Hunger Games fans: pay attention to the eyes).
But beyond those minor issues, The Hunger Games is a rousing success story. Fans of the novel should be satisfied, and newbies, though sure to be confused at parts, should at least be appreciative of the cinematic flare on display here. If you’re not excited for the Catching Fire movie by the time the end credits role, I suggest you check out Twilight because clearly you aren't ready for the maturity of Ross and Collins' world. For everyone else, in the immortal words of Effie Trinket: “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!”