- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Lionsgate Films
Reviewed by David Medsker
s film adaptations of young adult novels go, you’d be hard pressed to find one as ballsy as “The Hunger Games.” There is so much money on the line with this film – especially considering that parent studio Lionsgate bid a reluctant farewell to the “Saw” franchise only a little over a year ago, and could use another cash cow – and yet nearly everything about its execution flies in the face of standard Hollywood protocol. They hired a director who hasn’t helmed a film since 2003, and he shot it like he’s Ang Lee on vacation in the Appalachian Mountains. Fans of Suzanne Collins’ novel, of course, know that that is exactly how this movie needed to be made; it’s just surprising to see a studio show that kind of discipline when they normally are, shall we say, going all Tex Avery with the big dollar sign eyeballs.
The story takes place in the republic of Panem, where the United States has broken into 12 districts and, as a penalty for a failed uprising against the totalitarian government decades earlier, each district must offer one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in The Hunger Games, where the “tributes” must participate in a nationally televised battle to the death. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a skilled hunter who lives in the dirt-poor District 12, volunteers for the Games after her frail 12-year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen as a tribute. Katniss and District 12’s male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are shipped to the Capitol, where they very quickly realize how stacked the deck is against them after meeting the “career” tributes from richer districts. Katniss and Peeta’s mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), District 12’s sole Hunger Games survivor, seems of little use to Katniss at first (he likes to drink, a lot), but once Haymitch sees how affable Peeta is, and discovers that Peeta has a crush on Katniss, he sees an angle for winning the Games that has never been exploited before.
This is only the third movie that Gary Ross has ever directed. That is just all sorts of wrong. He wrote “Big” and “Dave,” then saved his next killer script for the woefully underrated “Pleasantville” (his directorial debut), and followed it by adapting and directing “Seabiscuit,” a film which won no Academy Awards but was nominated for seven of them. Dude knows what he’s doing, and it’s clear on a number of levels. The camera work in the districts is of the shaky, hand-held variety, a fitting metaphor for the poverty-stricken area. Once Ross moves the action to the Capitol (it’s in Denver, for those who haven’t read the books), the camera locks down, and the color palette is Technicolor gone haywire. No one exemplifies the ostentatious nature of the Capitol residents better than Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket, the District 12 liaison who wears more makeup than a concubine.
Anyone going into this movie blind should know that Ross has essentially made an indie film with an unusually large budget. He keeps the shots tight and intimate when he can, and only plays the opulence card when necessary. Given the plot, there is a considerable amount of exposition, since anyone who hasn’t read the books won’t know, say, how lethal tracker jackers are. There are also some scenes that could have benefited from the addition of a little behind-the-scenes commentary (to say any more would spoil the fun), so there are times when the script could stand to be slightly less faithful to the novel.
Jennifer Lawrence has a lot to live up to here, and she handles the many moods of Katniss admirably (her big scene with District 11 tribute Rue is devastating), but Hutcherson winds up stealing the movie as the immensely likable Peeta, closely followed by a rock-solid performance by Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ stylist Cinna. Liam Hemsworth, who plays Katniss’ friend and hunting partner Gale, is shortchanged here, which may cause trouble later when they try to work the love triangle angle. Harrelson is strangely restrained as the alcoholic Haymitch. He seemed larger than life in the books than he does here. Banks’ Effie is a preposterous human being, but that’s also the point.
It will be curious to see how audiences react to “The Hunger Games,” because it is not your typical tentpole blockbuster. It’s patient and quiet (as is T Bone Burnett’s wonderful futuristic country score), and much more thoughtful than most movies of its kind. Hats off to Ross and Lionsgate for staying true to their instincts, and going for the heart instead of a cheap adrenaline rush.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
As you’d expect from a high-profile release like “The Hunger Games,” Lionsgate has loaded the movie's Blu-ray release with a ton of great bonus material. Although some might lament the lack of an audio commentary by director Gary Ross and the cast, the ridiculously in-depth making-of featurette “The World is Watching” (which runs just over two hours long) more than makes up for it, covering an array of topics like adapting the script, casting, production and costume design, stunts, special effects and more. The two-disc set also includes a featurette on Suzanne Collins’ novels and their success (“Game Maker”), a reading by Donald Sutherland of the fascinating three-page letter that he wrote to Ross before accepting the role as President Snow, and a conversation between Ross and film critic Elvis Mitchell about the film. Fans are going to love this.