Hunger Games, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 03/24/12 19:53:53

"Gets enough of the book on the screen."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

To those scandalized by the kids-on-kids violence in "The Hunger Games": you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The movie, based on the first in Suzanne Collins’ young-adult dystopian trilogy, will clearly make enough bank to justify adapting the subsequent two books, and the third book, Mockingjay, is shot through with nightmarish war imagery: a man’s legs blown off, another man melted by some sort of death ray, the gory limbs of children scattered everywhere. Before we get there, though, there’s this first entry, which has been handled with a certain amount of taste. The brutality, when it comes, is glimpsed fearfully, not lingered over. The titular Hunger Games, which pit 24 “tributes” from ages 12 to 18 against each other in a vast arena, don’t look remotely fun. There’s very little triumph or exultation upon killing someone, just a sickened relief that someone else is dead and you aren’t. Yet.

I was unprepared for how quietly engaging, almost contemplative, The Hunger Games is. I enjoyed Collins’ books, narrated by sullen heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who enters the Games in the place of her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields). We’re in some horrid far-flung future where America has been divided into poverty-stricken districts (Katniss is from District 12, the coal-mining segment) under the iron rule of a fascist government operating out of a central, one-percenter-filled Capitol and headed by the vicious gray eminence President Snow (Donald Sutherland, looking as though he wants another cat to kill as in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 but having to settle for a Katniss). Katniss goes to the Games with another boy from District 12, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who secretly loves her and then lets millions of viewers in on this on TV. Yes, everything’s on TV. But will the revolution be televised?

Katniss’ glum, matter-of-fact narration from the books is gone here, and maybe the movie could’ve used it. Director Gary Ross, who worked on the script with Collins and Billy Ray, tries to do as much without words as possible. I frankly don’t know how much of the movie will be clear to non-readers; with Katniss’ first-person-present-tense inner monologue gone, nobody explains to us why Peeta seems to throw in with some brutal “career” tributes, and the urgency of Katniss’ having to keep up the “starcrossed lovers” ruse between her and Peeta seems undercooked. A lot of the movie, in fact, is under-emphatic; it seems to take its cue and tone from the mournful twang of the score by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard. The narrative itself guarantees suspense, but Gary Ross seems consciously to disregard excitement in favor of bedraggled burnout.

Jennifer Lawrence is in almost every frame, and she communicates the Encyclopedia Britannica with tiny shifts in expression. She has to, because Katniss, who’s from stoic coal-miner stock, doesn’t talk much. The movie, which still tips the scales at two hours and twenty-two minutes, doesn’t have time to get into the culture and politics of the Capitol; we somewhat lose track of Katniss’ mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and advisor Effie (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks), though Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), hardly seen at all in the book, gets more screen time than I expected. It’s all on Katniss’ shoulders, and Lawrence carries it with quiet grace. Her scenes with Amandla Stenberg as Rue, a tiny young tribute who allies with Katniss, constitute a fine mini-movie in themselves.

The Hunger Games has its problems — according to the movie, the corpses of the fallen tributes seem to be just left there to rot, instead of being airlifted immediately as in the books, which removes some urgency from a scene in which Katniss has to salvage a bow and a quiver of arrows (Katniss’ particular set of skills) from a recently stung-to-death tribute. But Ross doesn’t seem overly interested in the logistics of the arena or in gladiatorial thrills; he stays inside Katniss’ emotions and perceptions (most effectively in a trippy passage when Katniss herself is stung and hallucinates). I should say for the record that the thought of teenage girls, as well as many others who are neither teenage nor female, responding so readily to the story of an honorable, heroic and self-sufficient girl warms me far more than the thought of teenage girls swooning over a love triangle between a non-entity, a sparkly vampire and a werewolf.

"The Hunger Games" stomps the "Twilight" saga flat, and though I found those films somewhat amusing, this one is the real deal, pointing the way for two sequels that will get much more real and give the mass audience food for thought about violence, war, the power of the 99%, propaganda, and the truism that until everyone is free, nobody is free.

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