With Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci. Written by Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray. Directed by Gary Ross. Rated PG-13 (for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens). 142 minutes.
There’s a rule that any defense of a film that begins “If you had read the book…” automatically fails. A movie has got to be able to stand on its own, since most viewers will not have read the book. However, as with any rule there is an exception, and in this case the exception is when most of the viewers will have read the book. Recent examples of movies with a pre-groomed audience include the “Harry Potter” series, “The Lord Of The Rings” and “Twilight.” To that must now be added THE HUNGER GAMES.
The first of an expected three films based on the phenomenal trilogy by Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games” is a nearly perfect adaptation that should satisfy fans of the books and, perhaps, win them new adherents. Nonetheless, as with the other examples, there will be those who haven’t read or disliked the source material who will detest the film as hard to follow, boring, bad filmmaking, etcetera. This is not meant as a slam. This reviewer loved the “Harry Potter” books and movies, hated the Tolkien books and their adaptations, and never read the “Twilight” series and thinks watching paint dry is more exciting than seeing it on screen. Consider this fair warning.
“The Hunger Games” is set in a future North America where the nation of Panem is divided between the elites in the capital and those living at subsistence levels in the twelve surrounding districts. Years before, there was a revolt that was suppressed and now, each year, the districts must provide two “tributes” – two teenagers – who will fight to the death in a tournament. Not made clear in the movie is that the victor/survivor wins additional food for his or her district for the coming year.
The heroine of the story is Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers to fight as a replacement when her younger sister is selected in the annual “reaping.” Katniss is one of the most fascinating teenage girls in modern pop culture. She’s smart, tough and independent, but she’s also insecure and not quite ready to tackle the intrigues of the adult world. Lawrence, who came to notice in the arthouse hit “Winter’s Bone” (and received an Oscar nomination for it) is sensational as Katniss, ably carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders.
In many ways, the story is a metaphor for adolescence, which explains why this dark, dystopian story has been such a success as a YA novel. The adults make conflicting demands on Katniss and it’s not always obvious who has her best interests at heart. The surly and usually drunk Haymitch (a wonderfully cast Woody Harrelson) serves as mentor to Katniss and fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), since he was the last victor from District 12. The President (Donald Sutherland) is only interested in maintaining power, and a feisty underdog teen champion is the last thing he wants. TV personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) uses his flashy interviews with the contestants for his own purposes. Only her fashion coordinator Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) seems to really care.
Director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”) has done a tremendous job porting the novel to the screen. The screenplay (worked on by Ross, original author Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray) compresses the story, losing some minor characters and plot points. It stumbles primarily in assuming too much knowledge on the part of the viewer. The fact that the various fauna – like the mockingjay and trackerjacks – have been created by the authorities to suppress the districts is not made clear. Thus Caesar actually has to do an “infodump” for the audience to explain the appearance of the trackerjacks, and the appearance of the feral “mutts” in the film’s climax lacks the impact it had in the book.
So, if you’ve read the book, go see “The Hunger Games” and enjoy one of the best film adaptations in recent years. If you haven’t, you might want to add to your enjoyment by reading it beforehand or, at the very least, bring a teenager along to answer your questions.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.