A film like The Hunger Games doesn’t come along very often. Instead there are blockbusters and tentpoles and giant cinematic airships filled full of hype that burst into flames the second you step into the theater. But The Hunger Games is different; it’s an event movie, a milkshake that brings millions of boys (and girls) to the yard, most of whom share a love for Suzanne Collins’ source novel. There is something special about movies like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and even Twilight: For the most part, it’s not the trailers, the superstar cast, the marketing tie-ins, or the movie theater air-conditioning that draws people in. It’s words on a page. In a cultural environment in which articles that take more than three minutes to read are called “longreads,” any text-based event is exceptional, all the more so given the target audience: Teenagers who have constant access to smart phones and iPads and a hundred other things that may offer more allure than a book.
Half the people coming into The Hunger Games are seeking a new experience, and the other half simply wants to re-live an experience in a new medium. Director Gary Ross does an outstanding job of balancing the two constituencies. He doesn’t make the mistake of removing large sections of the story to fit it within a film’s standard running time: He abridges and he compresses: prior readers’ experience will be enriched by the context and the intensity of emotion they already have for the characters, while those who are unfamiliar with the story are not bogged down by exposition dumps and half-formed arcs that are often added to adaptations solely to satisfy the readership base. Ross, who also wrote the screenplay along with Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray (State of Play), is more interested in making a great movie than pleasing a certain audience, and he succeeds in both endeavors.
The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic world in the country of Panem where the countries of North America once existed. Post-war, it’s broken up into 12 districts, all of which are controlled by the metropolitan Capitol. As punishment for an earlier rebellion, each year one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 is selected from each district by lottery and forced to participate in The Hunger Games, a televised event in which the participants — the “tributes” — kill each other until only one victor remains. While its not an especially original concept, it’s heady stuff for a YA audience, and it doesn’t stoop to becoming a silly indictment of reality television or a warning about the future of our own popular culture. It’s more literal than that: Panem is ruled by a dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who uses the Hunger Games to control the population through fear. What’s more terrifying than taking children away from their parents and turning them against each other in a game in which 23 losers die? The competition between the districts also creates divisions that destabilize each, channeling their energy into the games and quelling potential uprisings.
The story centers on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) a 16-year-old tribute from the coal-mining District 12 (formerly Appalachia). Katniss volunteers for the games after her younger sister, Prim, is chosen by lottery, and in entering the competition, she leaves behind Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her best friend, hunting partner, and unspoken romantic interest. Thanks to a life spent illegally hunting in an effort to support her family — her father died in a coal mining accident, which traumatized her mother to the point of uselessness — Katniss is a whiz with the bow and arrow. She is, however, at a distinct disadvantage up against the tributes of several other districts, who have been trained for the Hunger Games their entire lives.
The other tribute selected from District 12 is Peeta, a boy who is in love with Katniss. She struggles with her affection for him (he once saved her from starvation,) and the ruthless disregard required by the games — ultimately, she will have to kill him in order to survive.
A number of strategies allow tributes to gain an advantage in the games, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) — a former victor turned drunk — mentors both Katniss and Peeta. Katniss also develops a bond with her stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who provides emotional support before the Games. Once the Hunger Games begin, however, the tributes are on their own, though (and here is the “American Idol” sendup) if they can rally enough sympathy from television viewers in the capitol, sponsors may occasionally float them medicine or food.
Gary Ross does a remarkable job of not over-producing the games. It’s a spare, natural setting that Ross doesn’t pollute with Michael-Bay type special effects, nor is it made to look like a futuristic sci-fi dystopia. It looks and feels natural, and the competition plays out as you might expect: It’s Lord of the Flies crossed with The Running Man set in a forest. Members of the Capitol do have the power to control the environment to move the games along and prevent tributes from hiding out until everyone else has picked one another off.
Collins’ novel is peopled with so many rich characters that it would double the running time to capture it all, and Ross crafts such a splendid universe, most audiences would not have minded if the film had been longer. The spirit of the novel is maintained, however, and Ross deftly conveys the intensity of the games without showing us the violence. He hits the sweet spot between heavy adult themes and a PG-13 sensibility. He also successfully depicts the ambiguous romance between Katniss and Peeta and, with only a few short reaction scenes, captures the affection Gale — who is still back in District 12 — retains for Katniss and his burgeoning jealousy toward Peeta. Indeed, the love triangle is established without any of the saccharine sentiment associated with Twilight .
Much has been made of the casting of healthy 21-year-old Jennifer Lawrence as a starving 16 year old, but she nails it — any reservations dissolve as soon as she appears onscreen. Moreover, Elizabeth Banks (as Effie), Woody Harrelson (as Haymitch), Stanley Tucci (as Flickerman) and Lenny Kravitz (as Cinna) are perfectly cast, and any preconceived images you might bring to the film are instantly supplanted by the cinematic versions. Amandla Stenberg’s Rue? Her role, by necessity, is significantly reduced in the film, but she still successfully captures the intensity of that relationship and her arc is as heartbreaking as it is in the novel. If there’s one weak link, it’s Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta. His performance is average in comparison to Lawrence and the veteran actors in the supporting roles.
It’s rare that a director can successfully adapt a novel — especially one with as big a following as The Hunger Games — in a way that both thrills new audiences and satisfies the textual purists. Gary Ross, however, knocks it out of the outdoor arena, extracting brilliant performances from his cast, perfectly rendering the words from the page into images on the screen, and capturing the exact tone of the book: Somewhere between sickly grim and supremely entertaining. The Hunger Games does more than live up to the hype; it makes the hype an afterthought.