Following a rebellion by its people, North America as we know it is forever-changed. The continent that has risen out of the ruins is now called Panem, which consists of 12 (previously 13) districts and is ruled by the super-wealthy and ultra-powerful Capitol, where people dress like it’s the 1980s but live like it’s the 2100’s.
Every year, as a reminder of the rebellion and the lone district that was destroyed — and not to mention a punishment by the Capitol — one teenage boy and one teenage girl (the “tributes”) are each selected in a lottery (the “reaping”) to compete in The Hunger Games, a televised, 24-person Battle Royale-esque fight-to-the-death in which only one person can win.
The Hunger Games stars up-and-coming actress (and Oscar nominee) Jennifer Lawrence as its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who resides in the mining community of District 12. Also residing in District 12 are Katniss’ family, her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and bread-boy Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson).
When, on Reaping Day, Katniss’ younger sister Primrose is selected as the female tribute for District 12, Katniss volunteers to take her place and participate in the Hunger Games. Peeta is chosen as District 12’s male tribute.
The two are shipped off to the Capitol, where they meet Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), their mentor and a former Hunger Games winner from District 12; Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), their Capitol-escort; and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), their stylist. Once at the Capitol, they prepare for the games by learning survival skills and attempt to win sponsors to give themselves a better chance at winning the Games by showing off their skills.
And then, the Games begin, and it’s winner-take-all, kill or be killed, all taking place on a reality TV show that the entirety of Panem watches unfold each day. As a tribute in the Hunger Games, you either win, or you die. If you’ve read the book or have already seen the movie, then you know how the Games unfold, and if not, well, I’ll leave it up to someone else to spoil for you.
With the basic storyline out of the way, first things first: the positives.
The acting is astounding, all around. Jennifer Lawrence absolutely knocks it out of the park as Katniss Everdeen. From the first frame until the end of the film, I was convinced that this girl was Katniss. She is unassuming but an excellent shot, quiet but seemingly arrogant, caring but not wanting to care.
Josh Hutcherson is well-cast as Peeta, and he plays “the boy with the bread” convincingly. And the supporting cast, with Banks as Effie, Harrelson as Haymitch, Kravitz as Cinna, Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickman, and Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, is just icing on the cake. Each actor knows their role and executes it to the best of their ability, which is refreshing to see in a young-adult novel adaptation.
As an adaptation, The Hunger Games is as faithful as faithful can be. The story is slightly streamlined but keeps all the major plot points intact, and the dialogue rolls off the actors’ tongues. I was equally impressed by the look of the Capitol and the Games arena, as they very much matched the images that I had in my head while reading the book. And the Cornucopia (in the middle of the arena where strategic items are placed) is expertly designed and very futuristic-looking without feeling over-the-top. If this film is not nominated at the Oscars for Costume Design and Art Direction, I would be greatly surprised.
However, it seems that a Visual Effects Oscar nomination would be a bit of a stretch. While the special effects were in no way bad, there were some things that just didn’t work for me.
First, the Fire outfits: the outfits that Cinna designs for Katniss and Peeta to wear during the opening ceremonies fell a bit flat for me. They flat-out looked fake. There were also times in which the train sequences, when shown from the exterior and from a far distance, looked a bit off to me, but these are minor quips about an otherwise superb film.
However, I must be say that it is refreshing to see a blockbuster lean on its story and have the special effects as a supporting player, rather than the other way around. Instead of the effects driving the movie, the plot is what drives The Hunger Games, and there happen to be effects as well, some of which are very good and some of which aren’t so. But I’d rather have a film with a great story and decent effects than a film with superb effects and no story.
Now, long ago there were concerns about whether a PG-13 Hunger Games could work. Would the film lose its adult edge? Or could it capture the raw brutality and essence of the Games without feeling too “kiddified”?
In short, yes, it can and does capture the brutality of the novel. Director Gary Ross chose to go with a shaky-cam for the action/killing sequences, making use of sharp cuts and quick pans, and it works very effectively. The violence and brutality are still there, but they are in no way gratuitous. Some of it is left to the imagination, and we all know that the imagination, left to run wild, can often be far worse than anything a director could put on the screen. I applaud Ross for sticking to his guns and making a PG-13 Hunger Games not only work, but ultimately shine.
The love-triangle in the book is largely downplayed in the film, instead focusing more on the “star-crossed lovers” (Katniss and Peeta) than the other part of the triangle (Gale), much to the applause of at least one viewer (myself). The last thing that a new franchise like this needs is an annoying and overly drawn out teenage love triangle to get in the way of all the action of the Games. Sure, the love triangle will play a larger role in Catching Fire, but it was wise of Ross & Co. to leave it mostly out of the first film, so as not to turn off its male viewership that isn’t familiar with the source material, since the story of the 74th Games is mostly driven by the “star-crossed lovers” act (or is it one?) by Katniss and Peeta.
At 142 minutes, The Hunger Games never feels long or drawn out, and for being a very true adaptation of a novel, it never feels rushed, either. Ross, author Suzanne Collins, and fellow screenwriter Billy Ray tell the story that they want to tell at a pace appropriate to tell it, and they greatly succeed. Where any other film could have missed the mark and fallen into Twilight territory, this is one young adult novel that plays better than its aimed-at demographic would incline you to think it ever could. And while the film follows the book very closely, it is also accessible and universal enough that watching the film doesn’t require that you’ve already read the book, although it definitely wouldn’t hurt.
It would seem that odds would clearly not be in the favor of any PG-13 film that is set in a post-war dystopian future and centered around a long-standing tradition in which 24 teenagers battle to the brutal, bloody, and often merciless death. But when that film is the cultural behemoth and juggernaut that the The Hunger Games is, well, you better count on the odds being in its favor.
Bottom line: fans of Suzanne Collins’ novel will find all sorts of great things about Gary Ross’ adaptation, and even if you haven’t read the book, there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had. The Hunger Games is the first must-see movie of 2012.
My score: A
And now the tough part: finding a ticket for opening weekend. As those in Panem would say, “may the odds be ever in your favor.”