(by Dustin Putman
As a title, "The Hunger Games" holds a twofold meaning. In the futuristic dystopian society in which the story is set, the United States has been broken up into twelve districts, all of them controlled under the iron thumb of the exorbitantly wealthy, undeniably dictatorial city known as The Capitol. Every year, the names of all the children, ages twelve to eighteen, are put into a lottery, a single boy and girl from each district called upon to fight in a deadly competition where only one survivor shall remain by the end. This victor and their immediate relations will be set for life; the other twenty-three families are left to mourn their deceased son or daughter. Naturally, the players have a hunger to win no matter the cost, but they also are genuinely famished, food and water tough commodities to come by during a game where they are let loose in a patch of wilderness and, save for the occasional backpack of supplies or gift from one of their sponsors, left to fend for themselves for the duration. The common people's lack of resources, particularly when it comes to sustenance, is a huge part of why the Capitol can so easily control the districts, and it's the one crucial element that has been most grievously overlooked in the path from novel to motion picture. Article continues below
As adaptations go, "The Hunger Games" is generally faithful, decidedly auspicious, and ultimately streamlined to appease the Hollywood gods who would prefer to see dollar signs rather than a truthful telling of Suzanne Collins' tome, the first in a best-selling trilogy. Its PG-13 rating has required a fair share of watering down what is, violence-wise alone, an R-rated book, but there's less of an excuse when it comes to overlooking the very conflicts of the games themselves. The constant struggle for not only food and water, but also the harsh elements of weather and temperature, have been taken out of the equation. The characters look well-fed at all times when they should be malnourished, not even the barest hint of cracked lips depicting their dehydration. It is unrealistic, to be sure, but also strips the second half, especially, of its texture, its development, and its ever heightening stakes. Under the guidance of writer-director Gary Ross (2003's "Seabiscuit") and co-writers Billy Ray (2009's "State of Play") and Collins herself, the title no longer has much point.
Playing the resourceful, no-nonsense 16-year-old protagonist Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence (2011's "X-Men: First Class") doesn't have the luxury of the source material's ongoing first-person narration, but she's such a complex and expressive actress that she rarely needs it, anyway. Living in the lowly mining community of District 12, she spends her days hunting with 18-year-old best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and bartering for food to provide for herself, her widowed mother (Paula Malcomson), and delicate 12-year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields). On the day of the so-called Reaping, Katniss is horrified when Prim's name is drawn and, knowing that she would never make it in the contest, volunteers to serve in her place. Chosen as the boy from District 12 is 16-year-old baker's son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), whom Katniss shares a key past run-in with. Following a trip to the opulent Capitol where they and their twenty-two other opponents go through the rituals of getting make-overs, being officially introduced in a lavish ceremony, giving interviews, and enduring training sessions, it is time for the grisly main event to begin. Caught by hidden cameras for the country to see, it's every young man and woman for themselves. The object of the game: to be the last one standing - or at least breathing.
"The Hunger Games" is the next eagerly-awaited franchise out of the gate one year after "Harry Potter" came to a triumphant conclusion and just as the far inferior, daft, and arguably sexist "Twilight" series is preparing for its final entry. Whereas "Twilight" has boiled down to a glorified soap opera involving hunky vampires, rippled werewolves, and foolish school girls willing to sacrifice their lives for an infatuation, Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" is actually about something far deeper than teen romance (though there is a little of this) and fantasy creatures (ditto this, as well). Part sci-fi drama, part timely, real-world comment on the exploitation of human beings for the unclean purposes of entertainment value, the book—and film—thought-provokingly imagine a world choked and bullied by a totalitarian government who use the annual televised killing of children as a means of enslaving the common people and keeping them silently in their place. In facing her own mortality, Katniss begins the games only wanting to live. Via the savvy way she plays, however, she one-ups the Capitol—something President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is none too pleased about—and inadvertently empowers the districts. For the first time, they begin to wonder if an uprising against their oppressors is possible.
Boldly stirring and never less than involving, the film does an acceptable if eventually disappointing job of rendering the novel's elements. Indeed, a movie should be judged on its own merits separate from whatever it is based upon, but doing this calls out even more problems. The screenplay too often assumes that viewers already know what's going on; why else would the choice be made to not even explain at the onset that the twelve districts represents part of a post-war North America? As is, it's made to seem like an unidentified alternate country or even planet. While the characters and settings are exquisitely conceived—kudos to production designer Philip Messina (2010's "The Last Airbender"), Oscar-bound costume designer Judianna Makovsky (2009's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant"), and a top-notch visual effects team for bringing the book's detailed, sometimes out-there descriptions to vivid life—the follow-through isn't as consistently up to snuff. The world of posh grandiosity Katniss and Peeta enter into is a far cry from the gritty squalor of District 12, but the editing, always about forwarding things along, fails to drink in the atmosphere or the perversity of treating innocent teenagers like royalty as they prepare to execute them. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss' kind-hearted, gold-lashed stylist, isn't given enough time to bond with her to believably buy into their close friendship, either.
The picture's entire second half is dedicated to the morbid title festivities, and anyone familiar with Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game," 1987's "The Running Man," 2001's "Battle Royale," 2001's "Series 7: The Contenders," or 2007's "The Condemned" will be intimately familiar with the central idea of people being forced to kill each other for sport. The need for a PG-13 rating here calls for some corners to be cut and a bit of restraint to be embraced, but the overall events of the narrative go predominately unchanged, the names and faces of the fallen appearing each evening in the night sky. What has been slightly lost in translation is the full-bodied soul of Collins' words and the harsher adversities Katniss must face. The need for food, for water, for rest and energy and a reliable climate fall to the wayside and become non-issues. Also gone: the hovercrafts that come along to cruelly snatch up the victims in its mechanical claws, an excision that harms the effectiveness and overall gravity of certain death scenes. Without this, there is no explanation for what happens to the losing players. Furthermore, if the choice to not use this story point was embraced, why are hovercrafts established in the film's first five minutes?
Finally, by shortening the length of the games from approximately two weeks to four days, there is a rushed feel to a lot of what occurs and not nearly time enough to establish the romance that evolves between Katniss and an injured—and way too quickly healed—Peeta. During the pre-game interviews, Peeta throws a curve ball by announcing he's had feelings for Katniss all his life. In a bid to play up this star-crossed lovers angle, Katniss goes along with it, acting to the cameras and, hopefully, sponsors' emotions while starting to question if there might, in fact, be truth to her burgeoning feelings for him. This segment, poignant and verging on steamy in the book through no more than some shared kisses, comes close to being an afterthought in the film.
Liam Hemsworth (2010's "The Last Song") seems hesitant, as if he's still trying to figure out who Gale is, but the rest of the ensemble fall into character so effortlessly it's as if they were born for the roles. Jennifer Lawrence is the anchor of the tale as Katniss, refusing sentimental pleas for sympathy and earning the viewer's respect by being herself. When she throws on a smile for the cameras, it's all a part of her scheme. And when things really do get to her—saying good-bye to Prim, for one, or her short-lived camaraderie with youngest competitor Rue (Amandla Stenberg)—her turmoil and pain are palpably and intimately felt. As the upstanding Peeta, Josh Hutcherson (2012's "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island") is radiant as always, finding the authenticity within every situation and action asked of him and making it urgently real. In solid support, Woody Harrelson (2011's "Friends with Benefits") is just right as the drunken Haymitch, District 12's last surviving victor who acts as Katniss' and Peeta's mentor; Elizabeth Banks (2012's "Man on a Ledge") deliciously disappears under bright-colored wigs and make-up as District 12's rosy escort Effie Trinket; and newcomer Amandla Stenberg is splendid as youngest player Rue.
"The Hunger Games" should please fans, but leave them wondering what an alternate version might have looked like that wasn't afraid to get its hands dirty. This is a safer adaptation than the novel deserves, lacking in the full scope and more difficult hardships that would actively face anyone in Katniss' dire situation. With that said, the film is handsomely mounted, its music score by James Newton Howard (2011's "Green Lantern") and T-Bone Burnett (2005's "Walk the Line") is hauntingly resplendent, and in Katniss Everdeen is a strong, fascinating heroine who puts to shame the Bella Swans of the literary and cinematic world. When the competition ends and, in a wily flash, sets up the second installment, "Catching Fire," don't be surprised to have conflicting thoughts. Even at 142 minutes that fly by, "The Hunger Games" could afford a tougher treatment to go along with its heady thematic contemplations. Let's hope the filmmakers were only getting warmed up over what's to come.