Directed by Gary Ross
While making any sorts of comparisons to other bestselling novels turned into movie franchises may not be fair, Collins is a far superior writer to either Rowling or Meyers, her writing being so evocative it’s hard not to go into this with huge expectations that what we see on screen can possibly live up to our own imagination. In that sense, it gets things about half right.
It starts off explaining the concept of the Hunger Games and how they came to pass before introducing our heroine Katniss Everdeen and her immediate family, 12-year-old Prim and her widowed mother, still not quite over her husband’s death. Their District 12 environment, known as the Seam, is the first place where Ross’ production designer could really have impressed us, but instead, we get a rather drab and colorless world that isn’t nearly as effective at letting the audience know how destitute and hungry everyone is. The overuse of handheld camera and tight close-ups is unsettling, not doing much to make this first section of the film look very good.
Then along comes the almost unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as the garishly-dressed Effie Trinket, District 12’s own version of Rita Skeeter, looking completely out of place against the poor and starving. Things start to improve when the story moves to the Capitol, which looks like something out of a Terry Gilliam movie, the Eastern Bloc architecture creating quite a distinct contrast to the colorful characters that live there.
Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson are both well cast in that you grow to like them, although some may be put off by their tenuous relationship that seems to lack any sort of chemistry. This is partially because some important moments from the book are omitted or glossed over, making some of the most dramatic moments in the first half fall flat. We never really get any sort of gist of why Liam Hensworth’s Gale means so much to Katniss and the pivotal first meeting between Katniss and Peeta isn’t handled particularly well and may leave non-readers scratching their head. Certain bits of dialogue make reference to things that would make sense if you read the book but not so much when they’re omitted, and certain scenes are described so lushly by Collins’ prose, there’s no way the movie can live up to them. Don’t even get us started on how the death of Katniss’ father, one of the most significant catalysts to her personality, is mishandled.
On the other hand, Lenny Kravitz is note-perfect as Katniss’ stylist Cinna and Woody Harrelson brings much-needed levity as the duo’s drunken mentor Haymitch, although they miss many opportunities for even bigger laughs by removing some of Haymitch’s antics from the book. The Capitol is already so ridiculous on its own, a bit of slapstick would not have been out of place and could have helped keep the audience entertained through the grim set-up.
When “The Hunger Games” really starts to find its footing and starts to work is once the games begin for real and you start feeling the high stakes of survival and the real danger Katniss and Peeta are facing. The toughest opponents are those from Districts 1 and 2, the “career tributes,” who train for years before volunteering to fight, running in gangs picking off anyone they encounter and proving to be Katniss’ biggest challenge.
There’s plenty of things in Collins’ novel which wouldn’t seem to work in a movie, especially one that’s PG-13, and it’s a great credit to Ross that making these things work is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Being able to see behind the scenes of the Gameskeeper’s machinations and manipulations adds a lot to the games and even things like the Cornucopia (which supplies the tributes with food and other things) makes a lot more sense when you see what it looks like on screen. This is also where the relationship between the two well-cast leads really starts to gel and pay off and their “star-crossed lovers” angle starts to win you over just as it does those watching their every move with baited breath. It’s reality TV taken to an eerie extreme.
One of the biggest problem is Ross’ choice in using a subdued score by James Newton Howard and the music or lack thereof could have done a lot to bring more emotion to some of the scenes that don’t work as well as in the book. (For a movie that’s been playing up its soundtrack, none of the songs by any of the superstar artists actually appear during the film, but that’s probably a smart move.)
Music problems aside, there’s little question the movie ends on a high note, making up for some of the hackneyed omissions and the snail pace of the first half. Things are well set up for sequels with the exceptional casting of Donald Sutherland as President Snow, the Capitol’s malevolent dictator who turns into such a thorn in Katniss’ side you can’t wait to see how things might play out over the next two (or three) films.
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