A Hunger Fulfilled
For those unfamiliar with “The Hunger Games” phenomenon, the basic premise—a sort of wilderness gladiatorial contest where teenagers are sacrificed in a fight to the death reality show—may seem repulsive regardless of its merits. But that would be to judge Suzanne Collins’ mega-successful book and its utterly compelling film adaptation too harshly by its cover.
Look a little deeper, and by all means see this first installment of what is sure to be several more to come, and valuable themes of courage, teamwork, and redemption surface with plenty of romantic love and warnings about totalitarian government thrown in for good measure.
In other words, if “The Hunger Games” represents the latest book-turned-film blockbuster franchise built on the backs of fanatical adolescents for whom in previous years “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” were passions, then this is progress indeed. A big plus? Previous familiarity with the source material is not required.
Set in an unspecified dystopian future, a continent now known as “Panem” is divided into 13 districts and controlled by a centralized Capitol. Seventy-five years earlier, District 13 was crushed in a rebellion, and now the remaining 12 districts must offer up two teenage “tributes’ in remembrance. Among the 24 contestants is the brave Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who in the film’s gripping opening sequences volunteers to take her sister Primrose’s (Willow Shields) place when the younger sibling is chosen to do battle by virtue of an annual lottery known as “The Reaping.”
From early on, it is easy to see why director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) chose Lawrence. She brings an uncommon assurance to her young, female protagonist role, and displays the same quiet, fearless presence she did in “Winter’s Bone.” But Lawrence doesn’t have to carry the film alone, as a strong ensemble helps offset the film’s grim tone. The local baker’s son Peeta, who always admired Katniss’ beauty and bow-hunting prowess from afar and is now a fellow tribute, is played by veteran child actor Josh Hutcherson (“Journey to the Center of the Earth” films). Other important characters are portrayed by a stoic Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz in an excellent debut, the always engaging Stanley Tucci, a made-up-almost-beyond-recognition Elizabeth Banks, and most notably Woody Harrelson, as a former champion turned inebriated mentor.
For any film approaching science fiction, the environs and set design are key. Picture a milieu of pre-Depression pioneers who mine coal in an austere work camp, while the elite citizens of the high-tech futuristic Capitol celebrate the mayhem of the battle in their outlandish, seemingly Cirque du Soleil-inspired fashion and colorful pomp.
For a film with such a brutal storyline (even if the killing fields exist only in gifted author Collins’ imagination), the gore is restrained—some might say to a fault. Indeed, the first causality doesn’t occur until well into the film’s second half.
While the film’s erratic pacing leads to a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion, and the use of wobbly camera technique is annoying, Lawrence and crew are compelling and interesting from first frame to last.
If you are going to start another multi-movie behemoth, “The Hunger Games” is the right way to do it.
Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images.