Unlike certain other young adult book/movie franchises (koff! – Twilight – koff!), it’s easy for people of any age or demographic to watch The Hunger Games and see what the fuss is about.
But fans of the trilogy will be happy to know that the unlikeliest of action directors, Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) has taken this strange, propulsive, post-apocalyptic fantasy, treated it faithfully, and in the few instances where he’s added his own twist, actually made the story richer.
Case in point: as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) begins to become a Joan of Arc-type heroine, fighting for her life in the woods in front of a TV audience of millions, the threat to order she poses is not lost on President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the sinister chief executive of the oppressive nation of Panem, formerly the U.S.
A relatively minor figure in the books, he is given a soliloquy written by Ross and delivered to Snow’s second-in-command Seneca (Wes Bentley), about the importance of hope in controlling a population and the even greater importance of keeping hope in check. It is a moving piece of writing, and it takes author Suzanne Collins’ metaphor-laden adventure to a new layer of sophistication and relevance (Arab Spring anyone?).
For those who haven’t had the plot hammered into them by the studio marketing campaign, The Hunger Games takes place in an American dystopia, where the rich, decadent Capitol rules brutally over 12 “districts” that make up Panem. The Hunger Games are a ritual of control, wherein each district chooses a boy and girl, aged 12-18, to take part in a mass fight to the death.
Katniss – an Appalachian girl with mad bow-and-arrow skills - steps in to replace her fragile kid sister, and is joined by the local baker Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), whose chief asset is charm.
They’re joined en route to the Capitol by a couple of dubious mentors, including etiquette advisor Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), wardrobe advisor Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and the only living games champion from Katniss’s district, the drunk and cynical Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson).
The set-up is an hour long, and it leaves us plenty of time to imagine what it all means (Ross is professional enough not to hit us over the head with metaphors). At times, the whole thing seems to have a Red State/Blue State vibe, with the rainbow-haired drag-queen chic of Capitol citizens almost being a spoof of what people in Middle America would imagine New Yorkers to look like. The monumental architecture, meanwhile, evokes Rome/Nazi-era Berlin.
The Hunger Games, though, ramps up the tension when the killing gets started. The steamy North Carolina woods is almost a character in and of itself. It’s also where Lawrence, who was quietly strong in the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone, becomes a physically dominant figure. The last act of the movie is riveting without being graphically violent.
In the end, the movie is undeniably a rich fantasy adventure, with plenty of narrative wiggle-room for the two books/movies to follow.