By the end of the first act of The Hunger Games, the three 13-year-old girls sitting next to me had curled into the fetal position. They shed tears at some moments, and broke into giggles and applause at others. Two of them pried themselves away only long enough to go to the restroom -- the running time, much like the film's subject matter, is a gauntlet, clocking in at almost two and a half hours – and, as the credits rolled, I asked what they thought. In unpracticed unanimity, they sighed, "It's a masterpiece."
This movie is going to make all the money.
I've read the Suzanne Collins novel on which the film is based, along with the two follow-up books, and as a fan of the young adult-franchise, I can say with certainty that The Hunger Games will please more devotees than it will alienate. Blessedly for those new to the subject matter, it also stands alone as a unique, engaging and, at times, surprisingly pared-down dystopian sci-fi drama.
The story, set in the future North America of Panem, sectioned into 12 districts and controlled by totalitarian Capitol, centers upon Katniss Everdeen of District 12 (played by Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence). The Capitol's annual Hunger Games, held to keep the previously rebellious districts in their subservient places, involves a lottery in which a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 is selected from each district to fight in a televised death match. Bets are placed on who will be the last kid standing, sponsorships are granted to the most promising contestants, or "Tributes," and the participants are all too aware that a good show is what matters most.
After her meek young sister Prim (Willow Shields) is selected, Katniss volunteers to take her place, alongside male contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). The first half of the film (arguably the better half; what it lacks in the latter's action, it more than exceeds in thoughtful character development and an incredible slow build of tension) centers upon Katniss' roots, her introduction to the lavish world of the Capitol, her training for the 74th Games and her arc from strong, stubborn participant to unlikely frontrunner.
Director Gary Ross shows sound judgment in putting the bulk of the film's emotional resonance in Lawrence's capable hands. Much like the book, this film is Katniss' story, and Lawrence knocks it out of the park. She exudes strength and immediately endears the audience to her plight; she's capable of conveying myriad emotions in a single look, and her physicality hits that perfect balance of toughness and vulnerability. If her breakout performance in 2010's Winter's Bone hadn't already sealed it, she is the perfect casting choice -- and she deserves another Oscar nomination for this role. The best parts of the movie are those that follow our heroine in solitary survival-style scenarios, first while demonstrating her archery skills in the forests surrounding her district, then while training in front of sponsors, and, inevitably, while navigating the terrain of the Games.
The novel’s purists will notice tweaks almost immediately -- notably, the origin of Katniss' mockingjay pin and infamous three-finger camera salute, a lack of any details about the other 11 districts, the backstory of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and, most problematic, Katniss’ history with fellow District 12 resident Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). Much of this is done for the sake of brevity -- the film, even at its epic length, is the best possible "greatest hits" adaptation of the book's plot points -- but the lack of emphasis on Gale and Katniss' relationship will undoubtedly hurt later installments of the franchise. I hate to disappoint those on Team Gale, but he's hardly in the movie.
Peeta's tale, on the other hand, is completely fleshed out: Hutcherson deftly captures the arc of baker's son to audience charmer, managing to harness the elusive balance between the character's perceived true feelings and those wielded solely as part of the game. Other standouts among the epic cast come from Amandla Stenberg as District 11's Rue (she is every bit as petite, sweet and savvy as fans of the book could hope), Alexander Ludwig as District 2's bloodthirsty Cato (he's downright menacing) and Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta's adviser Haymitch (Harrelson not only possesses impeccable comedic timing but manages to lend a level of humanity to the alcoholic winner of the 50th Hunger Games that the book never quite achieved). Alhough Effie isn't fully developed, Banks graciously allows herself to be grotesquely transformed, and spews her dialogue in sing-song tones with appropriately inadvertent comedic timing.
Issues with the lack of emphasis on Gale, and Peeta's considerable screen time, aside, Lawrence is so magnetic that the love-story angle seems unnecessary and -- dare I say? -- even laughable. Those in the audience who whoop and applaud are the ones who don't quite see what the narrative is attempting to uncover: the undertones of calculated, rebellious, staged emotions. Nothing is as it seems, for the contestants or those playing them like pawns.
That is perhaps the greatest achievement of The Hunger Games: the dichotomy between the outer and inner worlds of Panem -- the idea that corporate greed breeds inhumanity and capitalizes on the weak and poor, and, above all else, that those at the bottom of the food chain don't have to stand for it. This movie could've been adapted any which way -- far more sensationalized and Twilight-esque -- but instead we're given a sobering, oftentimes incredibly intimate personification of that very lesson in Katniss. The agenda of the film is surprisingly intelligent and brazenly against type for a big-budget PG-13 movie marketed to a massive teen following.
One recommendation I'd make, based on the incredibly shaky handheld camerawork throughout, is to skip this film in IMAX. The technique is used to brilliant effect when it comes to focusing close up on Katniss and her surroundings, as well as cloaking some of the more violent moments in the arena, but it can get a little dizzying for those more prone to motion sickness. Regardless, the technical aspects of this movie are so on point that, even with such a long run time, the pacing is relentless, the tension consistently built. The sound design pairs perfectly with the desaturated look of the outer districts, the naturalistic surroundings of the arena and the hyper-colorful, streamlined modernity of the Capitol, melding muted noises with natural effects and a pulse-pounding score.
The Hunger Games is a truly pleasant surprise, unyieldingly owning its status as 2012's first guaranteed blockbuster while also managing to be a thought-provoking sci-fi action film. It's the rare movie that impresses regardless of age, gender or familiarity with the material. I'd implore you to purchase a ticket, but based on some of the initial box office reports, odds are you've already bought one.
The Hunger Games opens Friday nationwide.