Fans can let out a sigh of relief. As far as book to film translations go, “The Hunger Games” can safely enter the pantheon of quality adaptations alongside “Harry Potter” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
Director Gary Ross delivers a sturdy adaptation of the first installment in Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young adult series. With Collins onboard as a screenwriter and executive producer, the film doesn’t stray too far from the source material.
“The Hunger Games” is set in the future, centering on the happenings inside Panem, a dystopian incarnation of the United States. Panem is comprised of 12 districts controlled by the Capitol. After squashing a rebellion by the districts 74 years ago, the Capitol forces the outlying states to atone for their actions each year by participating in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death. Each district must send two tributes – one boy and one girl – between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in the bloodbath.
Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) carries the film playing Katniss Everdeen, the feisty and resourceful heroine who hails from the poorest region, District 12. Lawrence is practically glowing with health, a far cry from her character’s role as poor coal miner’s daughter constantly teetering on the brink of starvation. Nonetheless, she nails Katniss’s prickly survival instinct, conveying the intensity of her internal monologue.
The constant pressure Katniss faces creates dramatic pressure and her hardened exterior always seems on the verge of cracking, something Lawrence understands well. In comparison, the other District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has led a relatively easy life as the baker’s son. The contrast between Hutcherson’s nice-guy charm as the boy with the bread and Lawrence’s unsentimental world-weariness couldn’t be more fascinating.
Both are aided by a strong supporting cast. Woody Harrelson is all sloppy charisma as Haymitch, the alcoholic mentor of the District 12 tributes. Harrelson has fun butting heads with an aggressively perky Elizabeth Banks as Capitol stooge, Effie Trinket. Lenny Kravitz is surprisingly affecting as Cinna, infusing Katniss’s stylist and steadfast friend with the subdued grace the character deserves.
The always reliable Stanley Tucci plays unctuous but likable Caesar Flickerman, the Hunger Games’ version of Ryan Seacrest. Tucci’s scenes are really the only time the film allows itself to indulge in cheese. Instead of reveling in the Capitol’s newfangled gadgetry, the movie chooses restraint. The vast disparities in wealth and living conditions are illustrated by the muted tones of District 12 juxtaposed against the oversaturated garishness of the Capitol.
As far as gore goes, moviegoers shouldn’t shrink from the gruesome premise. The film manages not to shy away from the grisly deaths, but it does so in a manner that is very much in the PG-13 realm.
The film is sprinkled with scenes that take place outside of the arena. Getting out of Katniss’s head is a fun treat for fans since the book is narrated in first person. There’s Haymitch schmoozing up to sponsors and Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) conspiring with the dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the rose garden. As a narrative device, these exterior scenes are effective, conveying relevant information that would have been otherwise stuck in Katniss’s head. It’s more fun to learn learn about the dangers of tracker jackers from an Olympic-style play-by-play with Caesar Flickerman than from a muttering Katniss.
Though “The Hunger Games” is solid, some of the original story’s emotional intensity is lost in translation. Character motivations feel lessened or lost – observe the ham-fisted moment of clarity for one of the villains towards the end. Ross and company do an admirable job adapting the social satire of a demented “American Idol”-style reality show, but at times they fail to grasp the audience’s heartstrings.
It’s these times when you begin to feel the film’s nearly two and a half hour length. You glimpse the machinations behind the whole operation and watch what the characters go through, but the film lacks the high-stakes feel of the books. The children being murdered onscreen should be atrocities that make your heart cry out, not mildly unsettle you.
Bottom line: While some scenes lack the emotional intensity found in book, this solid adaptation is definitely worth seeing in theaters.