The Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy-starter, is a bona fide publishing phenomenon, with millions of die-hard fans (this reviewer included). The filmed version was inevitable, and so hotly anticipated that the expectation has become larger than life. So, will The Hunger Games, the movie, disappoint readers of The Hunger Games, the book? The answer hinges on where those expectations lie within the reader-as-viewer.
My main concern regarding the book-to-screen translation was the fact that the print version was uncompromisingly gory, but the film was shooting for and received a PG-13 rating, in order to allow younger fans of the books access to the movie. However, the more violent aspects of the story were handled surprisingly well. I really didn’t need to see buckets of blood to feel the terror of the arena, which was still conveyed in fast-paced sequences filled with tension and fear. There is a very real sense of peril and foreboding in director Gary Ross’s rendition of the Games, carried out in minor details which are often seen through the eyes of the characters– such as the alteration in perception experienced by heroine Katniss when she is stung by a deadly tracker jacker, and later, her temporary loss of hearing after a major explosion. There is blood, but not in excess, and the strength of the story lies not in its brutality, which is adequately depicted, but rather in its characters.
There was much online debate as to the suitability of the lead actors for the roles in which they were cast, but viewers can rest assured that there were no mistakes made here. Jennifer Lawrence embodies Katniss to such an extent that it becomes irrelevant to think of her as an actress playing a part; she becomes our heroine with a completeness and simplicity that I have seen in very few actors working today, and even fewer younger ones. She is equally adept at portraying steely strength and heart-wrenching vulnerability, without resorting to posturing or melodrama. Josh Hutcherson, as her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta, takes an understated approach befitting his more pensive character, but is also permitted moments of a charming charisma, as Peeta is the more worldly of the two and understands the need to win over the Games’ audience. Liam Hemsworth has little screen time as Gale, Katniss’s best friend, hunting companion, and possible back-home romantic interest, but he has great presence in his scenes, and can convey emotion ably even without a line to speak. The supporting characters are well-cast, also. Elizabeth Banks is note-perfect as preening escort Effie Trinket and has a noticeable chemistry (absent in the book) with Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the sarcastic, alcoholic mentor of the District 12 tributes, who nonetheless, as a past winner himself, has valuable advice to impart to his charges. Lenny Kravitz is something of a quiet revelation. Known primarily as a musician and with only one previous onscreen acting credit, Kravitz is cast in the pivotal role of Cinna, the stylist responsible for Katniss’s transformation into “the girl on fire”, a heroine the masses watching the Games will root for with far-reaching consequences, and he brings a sprightly dignity to the role that makes Cinna truly memorable. President Snow, as portrayed by Donald Sutherland, and Game Maker Seneca Crane, played by Wes Bentley, get more emphasis in the movie than the book, and both are quite creepy. The Career tributes (Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Jack Quaid and Leven Rambin) are suitably formidable and cruel. Stanley Tucci is a scenery-chewing hoot as Games host Caesar Flickerman. Even the film’s youngest actresses, 11-year-old Willow Shields as Katniss’s sister Prim, and 13-year-old Amandla Stenberg as doomed District 11 tribute Rue, display acting chops far beyond their years; both will rip your heart out in their respective scenes.
There are, as always, some differences between the movie and its print counterpart. The character of Madge, who originally gave Katniss the mockingjay pin which will, later in the series, become her symbol, has been entirely left out; Katniss obtains the pin at the Hob herself as a gift for Prim, who sends it with her to the Games for luck. The stylists other than Cinna are barely seen, the subplot concerning the Avox girl Katniss recognizes in the Capitol is absent and the concept of Avoxes in general is hardly touched upon. The extent of Peeta’s injuries at the end of the Games is downplayed (which leads to the omission of Katniss’s freak-out upon being separated from him as she doesn’t know his condition), and, while the gift of bread from District 11 to Katniss after Rue’s death has been cut, we do get to see the first scenes of uprising in that district. There were certain technical/effects issues that may have been simply impossible to film– for example, the killer dogs at the end of the Games wore the humanoid faces of the fallen tributes in the book, but were straightforward giant dogs in the movie. Also downplayed is the conversation between Katniss and Peeta on the train at the end. In the book, Katniss admits to Peeta that she was acting for the cameras and isn’t really in love with him, crushing him, but in the movie we get only a brief exchange followed by smiling and waving at the crowds. This was done in all likelihood to avoid making Katniss appear unsympathetic at the ending of the film, which, at the book’s close, she certainly did, despite her intention of honesty.
Overall, the final product is impressive, by turns pulse-pounding and genuinely moving. Tightly paced, it shows no lag during its 142-minute running time, and the cinematography and effects are for the most part spot-on. The real backbone of the film, however, is its able actors, especially Lawrence, in whose hands the character of Katniss Everdeen becomes entirely real. The SeriouslyFluffy Final Grade: A-