Movie Review: 'The Hunger Games'

Much like its cast of teenage characters entering the arena wide-eyed and trembling, there's a cautious attitude from 'The Hunger Games' and director Gary Ross. It's as if this were the most highly anticipated movie of the year, an all-or-nothing tentpole for Lionsgate, and a story with a rabid and seemingly very picky fan base, or something.

Of course the film adaptation of a book this adored has to stay very faithful to its source material, and for the most part "The Hunger Games" does so. Yes, those flaming costumes are still there. Yes, the surprises in the arena are still there. Even Katniss' Tracker Jacker fever dreams are fairly accurate to Suzanne Collins' descriptions in the book.

For those unfamiliar with Collins' novel, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic North America ravaged by natural disasters and, subsequently, by war. The new nation, called Panem, has been divided into 12 districts, and following their failed rebellion against the Capitol, each must offer a boy and a girl in their teenage years, drawn at random, to represent their district in a televised battle to the death.

Our protagonist, Katniss, is the polar opposite of the protagonist of that other wildly successful teen movie series, which is releasing its final installment this year: unlike Bella, Katniss shies away from the inevitable love story and is an active, rather than passive, character. She doesn't allow things to happen to her; she makes things happen.

Because of the the film's faithfulness to its source material, fans of the book series will be happy with "The Hunger Games." It is undeniably fun to watch it all unfold: the terror (and awkwardness) of the Reaping; the wonder at the lavish and fanciful Capitol and the ceremonies; the instinctual reactions in the arena.

But because there will be audience members who haven't read the book, things need to be spelled out much more in the movie. At times, this is a great thing: Haymitch's gifts come with notes that convey what would normally have only happened inside Katniss' head.

But at other times, it detracts from the immersiveness of the arena. For example, those aforementioned Tracker Jackers or the fireballs launched at Katniss have to be explained for those unaware of the control from those in charge of the Games. This is accomplished through cuts away from the arena and back to the Capitol, where we get commentary from announcers and evil scheming from the Gamemakers.

Though these expository cuts are necessary, they take away one of the aspects that made the book so engaging: it's Katniss against the world, and Big Brother is watching. In the book, Katniss is completely unaware of the happenings outside the arena, which contributes to the despair she feels as the Games go on and the fear of the unseen enemy controlling her fate. After all, isn't that how we all feel when we're teenagers, like the world is watching? But when we can see the enemy, they lose some of their menace. They're humanized, despite their inhuman actions.

That said, the cast more than makes up for any flaws in the translation from page to screen. There are additional scenes with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) that diverge from the book, but help establish the stoic Suthlerland as a future threat. Fans were concerned about Lenny Kravitz as Cinna and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, and while Kravitz comes off a bit mechanical and flat, Harrelson shines, bringing the subtext to Haymitch that we only get through speculation on Katniss' part in the book.

Standouts include Elizabeth Banks, who clearly has fun with Effie Trinket, and Stanley Tucci, who has even more fun with Cesar Flickerman. Josh Hutcherson is affable as Peeta. Jennifer Lawrence is, as always, fantastic; the life in her eyes at each moment practically speaks the inner monologue that we're missing in the jump from the book to the screen. That's important, as it would be all too easy to lose the subtleties in Katniss' emotional struggles with her mother and with Peeta.

Gary Ross, for his part, manages some moments that work well. However, his love of the handheld camera is excessive at points: a frenetic, shaking camera is justifiable in the adrenaline-pumping moments in the arena, but completely unmotivated for shots of an old man picking at chicken bones on his porch in District 12.

This is not an adaptation without flaws, but the roughly two and a half hours it takes to unfold doesn't feel like nearly that much. Just take it easy on the Diet Coke. Any silliness at some of the visuals (those flaming costumes are supposed to be a vision to behold, but mostly just elicit chuckles instead) is forgotten when we get to the horrors of the arena. And while there were clearly some adjustments in terms of gore for a PG-13 rating, there's enough blood to convey the idea that this is a scarring experience for the young contestants, and that's the important lesson in it all.

If you're not already a fan of "The Hunger Games," this movie may or may not work for you, as some of the pills may be too hard to swallow. Still, if you're a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, it's well worth a look... and with three more installments on the way (the third book will be split into two movies), people will be talking, and you'll want to be in on the conversation.

If you are already a fan, then you'll walk away satisfied from this faithful adaptation. But if you're already a fan, then you've already seen it by now, haven't you?

Rating: 8/10