Suzanne Collins’ bestselling smash The Hunger Games is brought superbly to life in the film by the same name. Director Gary Ross teams up with Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins herself for the challenging task of adapting a first-person novel to a third-person movie, and they pull if off with fantastic effect to thrill the dedicated followers of the books and those who are attending the Hunger Games for the first time.
If you haven’t at least heard the basics of the story (Seriously, where have you been?), here’s a brief exposition. North America as we know it has fallen, and in its place has risen Panem, divided into districts specialized by trade and governed by the Capitol set in the Rockies. Long ago a great war broke out in this civilization, and the 13 districts rebelled against the the Capitol. The brutal war ended when the Capitol obliterated District 13. As a reminder and a warning to the rest of the districts, the Capitol requires each district to send two “tributes,” a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, to fight to the death in an annual, nationally televised event called The Hunger Games. For the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games, a little girl named Prim Everdeen is called to compete. Before she can take the stage, her older sister—16-year-old Katniss, the heroine of the series—steps forth to take her place as a tribute. Katniss and fellow tribute Peeta Mellark, a boy of Katniss’ age who has apparently been in love with her for some time, are swept off to the Capitol to train for the final battle, and then the plot really kicks off.
A compelling (if not especially original) plot drives this lengthy film with a brilliant pace, and the good writing combined with excellent acting keeps the audience fully enraptured. Jennifer Lawrence is a brilliant Katniss, bringing perhaps a little more warmth to a character who, while brave and resourceful, is fully aware that she is not entirely likable. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta is charismatic, warm, and vulnerable, and although he may not get enough screen time Hutcherson plays the role to near-perfection. The two main actors are supported by a fantastic entourage that is too lengthy to adequately cover, but big names like Stanley Tucci as Ceasar Flickerman, the host of the games, and Woody Harrelson as the jaded but dedicated Haymitch do not fail to deliver the quality expected of them.
The real brilliance of this movie comes in Ross’ use of contrasts to manipulate the audience’s emotions. From the very beginning there is a taut tension between the glib enthusiasm of the Capitol and the grim reality of the tributes in their attitudes toward the Hunger Games, amping up the outrage one is meant to feel for a system that deliberately pits its citizens against each other by requiring their children to fight each other. In the scene where Peeta and Katniss are escorted from the glaring, gritty reality of District 12 onto the train headed for the Capitol, the scene takes on an ethereal, numbing quality as the camera takes in the pristine cleanliness and over-the-top decoration of luxurious Capitol life. The garish decorations of the Capitol (almost like a Dr. Seuss book gone awry) heighten this contrast as well. The horror of The Hunger Games is made more horrible by the way the Capitol has normalized it into a sporting event, and the way Ross visualizes it can leave room for nothing but disgust for the system the Capitol has put in place.
Several critics have busted The Hunger Games for playing down the gruesomeness of children killing children, but in my opinion Ross uses the “less is more” approach to beautiful effect. The movie is bloody and brutal, but not in a way that puts it over the top. Watching children kill each other is a wrenching experience in and of itself, so Ross’ avoidance of handling the bloodshed like a battle scene out of Gladiator or Braveheart takes all the glory out of the fight. I cite the death of the boy from District 4—a tiny, freckled, twelve-year-old—as my example: the child breaks his cover and is overtaken by the brutal warrior from District 2. You see, from the back, a knife flash, a spurt of blood, and the child fall to the ground; a moment later you get a shot of his body crumpled lifelessly on the ground. The effect is shattering. Likewise, Ross handles the death of a major character in a beautifully tragic way, more gently than Collins does in the book but equally as heartbreaking.
The script cleaves closely to the book, which should console purists who want to see the novel they love portrayed faithfully on the screen. Even in the scenes that were not in the book, however, hold to the overall spirit of Collins’ story and perhaps even strengthen it. A revolt scene in District 11 is strongly reminiscent of a race riot, bringing cultural context to Collins’ commentary, and a monologue by the District 2 tribute, Cato, emphasizes the helplessness of Panem’s citizens and the atrocities of the Capitol while inspiring pathos for a very un-empathetic character. And the additional scenes of the gaming room—where the Gamemakers bring the arena to life—give a brilliant behind-the-scenes look that Collins’ first-person account simply cannot.
Of course, some aspects of the book had to be sacrificed in order to keep the film from spanning five to six hours of reel. Katniss’ difficulties in the arena that don’t involve the other tributes are not given as much time as in the book. Neither, disappointingly, is the conflicted relationship between Katniss and Peeta. This is, of course, a difficult thing to convey in a movie when most of the conflict, in the book, is taken from Katniss’ inner monologue. A major point in the relationship is barely brushed at in the last scene, but the movie is so wide open for the sequel that this point will no doubt be addressed early in the next film.
I honestly don’t have room to talk about how good a movie The Hunger Games actually is. All I can say is that it is one of the best book-turned-movie films that I have ever seen, faithfully adapting a pulse-pounding read into a cinematic achievement that can stand well on its own. I can’t wait for the next installment.