Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games are here, and fans of Suzanne Collins' best-selling novels are chomping at the bit to see Katniss Everdeen on screen. But how does the movie stack up to the book?

Credit: Alliance Films Inc.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen in the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games

Although The Hunger Games is a toned-down version of the novel — in terms of both plot and violence — it’s an entertaining adventure with a fierce female lead (SPOILERS)

For a novel that brims with gratuitous violence and references cannibalism, The Hunger Games film adaptation is comparably chaste. Diehard fans of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy will be disappointed at the liberties the film takes in both adding and removing material. But most changes are subtleties that don’t impede the telling of this story; rather they try to speed it up.

In a dystopian future, the nation of Panem is the last vestige of North America after a bloody civil war and uprising of commoners against the Capitol. The story takes place 74 years after the war ends, when Panem is a wasteland comprising 12 impoverished districts that are at the mercy of the cruel and lavish Capitol.

From afar, the Capitol is not unlike a modern city, towering with glass and concrete high rises, surrounded by water and hemmed in by mountains. Up close, however, its vapid residents and twisted culture are a disquieting vision of what we might look like in a future of unmitigated decadence and navel-gazing. I can’t decide what’s more frightening — the deranged and garish people of Panem’s Capitol, or the contented blobs from the animated hit Wall-E.

To remind the commoners of the strong hand of the Capitol, every year two “tributes” from each district — one male and one female between ages 12 and 18 — are randomly selected to fight to the death in a live televised contest called the Hunger Games.

As a young-adult-novel-turned-movie, The Hunger Games naturally finds itself in the company of ultra-popular franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight. What’s refreshing about this tale is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the District 12 tribute who provides a strong female lead. She is neither sexed up nor swooning after a boy. Rather, she has two boys hoping to gain her affections, one being Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the male tribute from her district.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games movie

Lawrence’s performance is one of the highlights of the film (Image: Alliance Films Inc.)

Katniss has been hardened by the death of her coal miner father and the brutality of growing up in Panem’s poorest district. Though Katniss is a stoic heroine, we see moments of unguarded softness when she’s with her younger sister, Prim, and hunting with her friend Gale. Early in the film we learn of her prowess with a bow and arrow, which will be her lethal talent when pitted against the elements and her opponents in the Hunger Games arena.

To my displeasure, most of the film is shot in excessive close-ups, almost as if the characters are being watched through the sight on a rifle. Even in scenes of dialogue, we’re whipped back and forth erratically. The frenetic and shaky camerawork conjures a sense of danger and uncertainty, but can be distracting and tires quickly.

In the opening moments of the games when the tributes simultaneously charge towards a cornucopia filled with supplies — which always turns into a bloodbath — the camera work is so frenzied that it’s hard to tell which knives and fists are going where and who’s killing or being killed. Much of the violence receives a similar treatment throughout the film, conveying murders on screen without the gore. It seems like a self-conscious attempt to maintain a kid-friendly rating and not alienate the younger audience members.

The eccentric host of the Hunger Games, Caesar Flickerman (played expertly and with extreme campiness by Stanley Tucci), narrates much of the action; it’s a clever trick, effectively filling in the gaps for those who have not read the novel and voicing what was originally Katniss’s inner monologue. We also glimpse Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) behind the scenes, working to secure sponsors for Katniss.

The feigned relationship between Katniss and Peeta, however, gets little attention or development, and we’re left to wonder how naïve the residents of the Capitol can be to believe the two have fallen so deeply in love that, by the end of the games, they would rather die together than live alone. Peeta confesses his love before the games commence, and Katniss, unmoved by Peeta’s declaration, does little to convince us otherwise as the film progresses.

Although much of the action in the arena feels rushed, the movie manages to capture the overall desperation of the tributes and the true oppressive power of the Capitol.

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger Games

The relationship between Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) suffers in the translation to film (Alliance Films Inc.)

The roles were well cast, with Jennifer Lawrence bringing a quiet edge to Katniss. The camera spends much time trained on her face, and one scene in particular, when she is carefully aiming her bow to destroy her opponents’ supplies, we see her raw intensity and the sense of urgency that she must fight through in order to make it out alive. Josh Hutcherson plays an endearing Peeta who is likable, but still doesn’t have the spark to win over Katniss.

It would have been nice to spend more time getting to know the opponents and exploring the tension in Katniss and Peeta’s relationship, but at nearly two and a half hours, the movie was long enough.

Any book-turned-movie is a challenge, not only for trying to please the built-in fan base, but also for finding a way to make the exposition in a character’s thoughts come to life on screen. Where The Hunger Games screenwriters couldn’t figure it out, they seemed to cut it. But what they did leave was good for a thrill.