The very best of science fiction tends to be memorable for more than just robots, space ships, and dystopian future. What makes them remarkable are the litany of ideas and concepts , both large and small, presented throughout. And if you can do that in a way that looks cool and is entertaining, then so much the better. It’s one reason why 35 years later we still admire Star Wars, and why Hollywood continues to try and emulate it. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy of novels falls into much the same category, a sprawling, epic adventure with social commentary to spare and a lead hero in Katniss Everdeen(Jennifer Lawrence) everyone can relate to. Yet people were justifiably worried about how that scope would be presented on the big screen, because more so than Harry Potter or Twilight, the exclusion of any single element could topple the immaculately constructed balance between fantasy and brutal realism that Collins constructed.
There is little reason to fear, Team Gale and Team Peeta fans. The Hunger Games is everything a loyal reader could ask for, but more than that it’s the type of film that promises a truly epic franchise in the making. With studios looking to adapt every semi-popular novel with the hopes of creating the next Twilight, few of them ever turn out to have the complexity and depth of character to stand the test of time. The Hunger Games is diverse enough to appeal to the broadest possible audience. There’s enough of a love triangle to have people rioting in favor of Team Peeta or Team Gale, yet the action is equally intense and effective without being overly graphic.
Credit immediately goes to Gary Ross, a seemingly odd choice for director who turns out to have been a perfect fit. Best known for Capra-esque movies like Dave, Seabiscuit, and the visually stunning Pleasantville, Ross is essentially doing the opposite of everything he’s done before. The deep, textured story begins with a simply worded prologue, introducing us to the line of thinking that allows for something like the Hunger Games to exist. Taking place in the fictional realm of Panem, where the ruling Capitol lords over 12 separate districts, each poor in their own way but working to sustain themselves and the government. District 12 has had it the worst, a mining town that looks chillingly like the squalor of Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s big breakthrough performance. She plays a similarly strong, fearless young woman with a family completely dependent upon her. Katniss dotes on her younger, more fragile sister, Prim(Willow Shields), and does the work their mother seems incapable. To escape the burden of her life, Katniss occasionally scales the barrier fence into the restricted wilderness to hunt alongside her best friend, Gale(Liam Hemsworth), who has dreams of running away with her to start anew elsewhere.The hopelessness of their situation is made more stark by the decadence of the Capitol, which we see in quick flashes of brightly colored hair, an unending supply of food, and garish architecture. Meanwhile the people of District 12 look at bread as a rare delicacy.
Any hope of escape is quickly dashed with the Reaping, a twisted lottery event held each year to select a boy and girl from each District to compete in the Hunger Games. The youngest have the fewest entries, while the oldest like Katniss and Gale have many, increasing their chances of being picked. When Prim has her name drawn, Katniss does the only thing she can think of to save her sister, and that is volunteer to take her place. The dramatics of the situation only brings a smile to the face of the flashy Effie Trinket(Elizabeth Banks), just the first taste that these games of literal life and death are seen merely as entertainment for the ruling class.
Katniss is soon joined by Peeta Mellark(Josh Hutcherson), a quiet and fiercely confident boy she shares a mysterious past with. A few rushed “good-byes” later and the two are quickly taken to the Capitol for training. Not just in the deadly arts they’ll need to survive against 22 other “Tributes”, but mainly in showmanship. Their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy(Woody Harrelson), is a survivor of the Games and butts heads with the gruff Katniss over her inability to make friends and impress potential sponsors. Peeta instantly takes to his new found celebrity, using it to make a stunning revelation on national television that forces everyone to fall in love with the two poor combatants from District 12. While this would please the toothy, pearly white grin of talk show host Caesar Flickerman(an inspired Stanley Tucci), it would draw the unwanted attention of President Snow(Donald Sutherland), who has a malicious vision for the Games that would send a chill up Darth Vader’s spine.
Looking back on when The Hunger Games was just entering production, one of the great debates was who could possibly take on the Katniss role in a believable way. Some felt Gary Ross needed to aim younger, but the decision was made to select the red hot Jennifer Lawrence, and it was a decision that proved to be the right one. She is simply phenomenal here, capturing some of that awkwardness of youth, but also showing a real strength and resolve of someone who has seen too much for someone of her age. The search always seem to be on for a new heroine that girls can look up to, and unfortunately too many of them have flocked towards Twilight’s Bella Swan, even though she is a character who is who she is because of the guys in her life. How interesting would she be without a wolf and a vampire fighting over here? Not much. Katniss is different, and whether we ever saw Peeta or Gale and the inevitable squabble for her affections, she would still be a character worth following. She’s incredibly likable, smart, and tougher than even her male counterparts. Katniss is a character every girl can actually look up to, genuinely one of the most fully realized movie characters of any gender.
The rest of the cast is superb, as well. In particular Josh Hutcherson, who many(including me) felt didn’t have the look or the natural presence the Peeta role demanded. He proves to be more than up to the task, showing flashes of real charisma in his verbal sparring with Stanley Tucci, and leading man charm when together with Lawrence. Lenny Kravitz is dead on perfect as Cinna, Katniss’ stylist who sees her as more than just tool in the Capitol’s games.
How does the film compare to the book? Well, as with any adaptation there are some characters and story elements that need to be dropped. Ross, along with Collins and Billy Ray as screenwriters, have managed to maintain the story’s integrity while cutting down some of the extraneous portions. One of the book’s prevailing features was that it was seen entirely from Katniss’s perspective, and they’ve managed to capture her internal monologue on screen, mainly thanks to Lawrence’s emotive performance. There are some portions of the story that are intentionally glossed over, likely because they will become bigger factors in the sequels, which are already in development. Lionsgate knows they have a hit on their hands, so why wait? This is a minor quibble, and can looked past because the allegorical elements are so on point. This is what happens when our celebrity obsessed, reality TV culture goes too far. It bears some striking resemblances to a film called Series 7: The Contenders, in which people killed one another off in a highly rated television show. The easy comparison many have made is to the controversial Battle Royale, but the two aren’t saying the same thing at all once you get past the surface similarities.
Those who might have been turned off by the extreme amount of hype swirling around the film need to put all that aside and just see the movie. This is without question one of the best pieces of science fiction we have seen in years. By comparison, The Hunger Games is a better opening salvo than Twilight and Harry Potter delivered by far, and the potential for this to to be a significant, celebrated franchise appear to be forever in Gary Ross’s favor.
The Hunger Games opens in Washington DC on March 23rd!