It's worth remembering, if you've read The Hunger Games -- the first part of a wildly popular young-adult fiction trilogy written by Suzanne Collins -- or knowing if you haven't, that the book is written entirely from the perspective of heroine Katniss Everdeen.
I say that because out of necessity the cinematic adaptation of The Hunger Games can't quite do that -- not unless it wanted to be a collection of grim violence, shaky camerawork and voiceovers by Jennifer Lawrence, who stars as Everdeen. And if you forget or don't know that the tale was originally told solely through the eyes of Katniss, you might find the film to be a bit of a mish-mash.
Subbed in for all-Katniss, all-the-time are extra hints of allegory about terror and reality television and a played-up love triangle that help piece together the bleak world in which she lives. And hey, maybe The Hunger Games is a bit of a mish-mash at times, but I'm willing to forgive that because it's such a well executed vision of this particular dystopia.
It seems cursory to go over this given the ubiquity of Collins' books at this point, but Katniss hails from District 12 of Panem, a futuristic distortion of the United States that, some 74 years prior, endured a brutal civil war in which the Capitol District was triumphant over the other 13 rebellious districts, one of which was completely wiped off the map. As punishment for their rebellion, each of the remaining 12 districts sends as tribute one young boy and girl to the Hunger Games, a 24-person fight to the death in an annually changing outdoor arena that is manipulated, Truman Show-style, by the oddly coiffed Gamesmaker and his minions.
Katniss volunteers as tribute -- a first volunteer from District 12 in the 74 years of the Hunger Games -- in place of her sister Primrose, and she, along with fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson), is whisked off to the Capitol in a high-speed train to begin preparations for the Games. There, she is mentored by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), garbed by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and assessed by Gamesmaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and his cronies.
It's a dazzling world, the Capitol, and it will feel familiar to anyone who has seen Star Trek, only with more pink and purple hair and layers of makeup that feels like a cross between The Mikado and Hackers. The Capitol is a purposeful juxtaposition to Katniss' District 12, which is poor coal country and looks like it might suit The Waltons quite comfortably.
Anyway, the Games -- the very real prospect of death for 23 of the 24 contestants -- are the elephant in the room, and just as Katniss and Peeta begin to get comfortable with the Capitol they are thrust into the arena, a densely forested area this time around that resembles the woods in District 12 in which Katniss illegally hunts. And it is here that the plot turns on a dime, pivoting from painting a picture of cold, unfriendly Panem to the heartpounding and tense action of the arena.
Katniss is gritty and tough and skilled with a bow and arrow, but she is also fortunate at many a key moment to continue on in the Games as the pack of 24 tributes dwindles down to a select few. There are two books after The Hunger Games, so you might guess that our heroine emerges unharmed, but I'll leave the remainder of the plot unspoiled.
Lawrence is terrific as the fragile, emotionally guarded Katniss; she's been on the star path ever since 2010's Winter's Bone, and The Hunger Games is certainly not going to knock her off of it. (Indeed, it may push her into the stratosphere.) Lawrence's performance is only overshadowed by the tremendous supporting cast around her. What more can you say about Harrelson and Tucci, who, for me, are two of the most underappreciated actors around. Both, along with Banks, provide needed moments of comedic relief in this harsh, barbaric brave new world.
And about that: I've seen it put forth in a few places that The Hunger Games is a little too celebratory of all the pre-teen and teen carnage that takes place in the arena. Well, I didn't get that impression at all. There were audible gasps in the audience when Cato, a "career" tribute and the de facto villain (at least in the arena), snaps the neck of a fellow tribute, and there was stunned, despondent silence when Rue, Katniss' young protege, is slain by a spear. The unflinching violence was hardly triumphant; besides leaving me drained, the only other thing I was wondering about it at the end was how the Motion Picture Association of America could have possibly given this a PG-13 rating.
I was not a big fan of all the shaky camerawork. That sort of thing is fine in moderation, but was leaned on far too heavily by director Gary Ross, especially during the Games themselves. I also didn't care much for the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, Katniss' only real friend back home, who is played by Liam Hemsworth. It felt forced, especially compared to the source material. It's an element of Collins' novel, but the translation of it to the silver screen felt overdone -- understandably so perhaps, given studio Lionsgate's success with such a dynamic in another of its properties -- Twilight.
But I was spellbound by the rest of it. This is not going to be an Oscar winner, but its appeal is readily apparent almost instantly and you can understand why The Hunger Games is going to make a whole lot of money. Just as important, it's hard to blame all the people lining up to see it at midnight screenings. This isn't Twilight, folks, despite the superficial similarities. It deserves the big box office numbers that it's going to garner.
There is quite a lot going on in The Hunger Games, maybe too much for the uninitiated experiencing Panem for the first time without all the Katniss-y context that I mentioned at the outset. And maybe it's a copout to mention that there will be time to unpack all of what's going in the next two movies, but there it is. Ideally, The Hunger Games would stand completely alone, but I'm not going to complain about something that doesn't quite because of its ambition, especially when sequels are a foregone conclusion.