by Tim Ross
It’s official, “The Hunger Games” is a hit. The film garnered massive profits its opening weekend as fans of the book series and the uninitiated alike continue to flock to the cinema. But does that mean that it’s a great movie? Almost.
Suzanne Collins’ dystopian look at a future America run by a dictatorial, oppressive capital government became a word-of-mouth bestseller. Aimed first at the growing young adult demographic, “The Hunger Games” caught on with people of all ages. The film, shot in Shelby, Concord and other nearby locales, was one of the most anticipated films of 2012 and, like any film based on a much-loved book series, came with immense pressure to appease readers.
“The Hunger Games” misses the mark in this regard. It’s not enough to say that a film shouldn’t be judged solely by the book on which it’s based – certainly not when those books are runaway bestsellers. The “Harry Potter” films were largely loyal to the books and they work on many levels. “The Lord of the Rings” went even farther in successfully translating the core material of the books to the screen. For me, director Gary Ross (and Collins herself as co-screenwriter), left what was most important about the books out of the movie. The relationships that are so critical to the book’s message are skimmed over and that weakens the film.
Jennifer Lawrence, who came to Hollywood’s notice with her Academy Award-nominated performance in “Winter’s Bone,” plays Collins’ beloved heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives in a mining community where she secretly hunts in the forest (an act forbidden by the government) with her bow and her best friend, Gale. She and Gale may be more than friends, but it’s a relationship that grows slowly and sweetly between a boy and girl on the verge of adulthood.
We meet them both on the day of reaping – the day that one girl and one boy from each district are chosen to participate in the Hunger Games. The games are a savage fight to the death with the lone victor receiving a house, money and food for life. Katniss’ little sister, Prim (Willow Shields), is chosen but Katniss volunteers to take her place. The chosen boy is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of the town baker. Kat and Peeta are whisked to the Capital with their district’s former champion-turned-alcoholic, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) as their mentor.
The movie gathers momentum here and we get a better taste of Collins’ vision of how our own society could degrade to extreme class warfare and wealth disparity. Katniss meets Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), her lead stylist, who teaches her the importance of image and perception. Donald Sutherland is suitably creepy as Capital President Snow and Stanley Tucci is silky and lascivious as the Games announcer, Caesar Flickerman.
Finally we are thrust along with Katniss and the others into the arena where the Hunger Games begin. The action sequences, partly in an attempt to dilute the violence for a PG-13 rating, are edited in a way that is generally blurry and bloodless. That’s OK, but the games themselves are not fraught with enough danger or suffering. Katniss never seems to thirst or hunger or even get really dirty under such extreme conditions. Even that is excusable given Lawrence’s acting skills but we just don’t get enough of what’s really at the heart of Collins’ novel, the relationships that Katniss develops with Gale, Peeta, Haymitch and Cinna.
“The Hunger Games” is a commentary on how relationships can trump all adversity. Cinna is one of the more fascinating characters I’ve read in a book in some time but Kravitz is given little to do and adds little more. Katniss’ confusing feelings about Gale and her new ones for Peeta also are given short shrift. We need to care more about their love triangle, how she’s torn by blooming feelings she doesn’t understand and can’t control and a promise of challenges ahead.
Like so many Hollywood films, “The Hunger Games” is somewhat reduced to sight, sound and effects. It’s an enjoyable ride, well acted and generally fast-paced, but it may leave many of the book’s biggest fans hungry.