There is a quote from author Stephen King which reads, "Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend." When I first heard about The Hunger Games, I was hoping it would be more along the lines of Harry Potter than those sparkly vampires who shall not be named. After curiosity got the better of me, I read The Hunger Games book and I was actually quite drawn to this intriguing world of Panem, the plight of Katniss Everdeen, and the 74th Annual Hunger Games, which is captured with impressive precision in Gary Ross' adaptation.
While I don't read nearly as much as I used to/should, I have found that watching a movie first and reading the book second is just as enjoyable as the opposite, yet more standard practice. Every movie adaptation can't fit every single bit of material from the book in, so the movie gives you a nice foundation for the story, and you can get the real in-depth details from the book. While I can't go back in time and watch the movie without having read the book, I wouldn't be surprised to see negative reactions from those who didn't read the book, because it almost seems that you really have to read the book to fully enjoy this movie. Unlike many adaptations which take a lot of creative license, The Hunger Games is firmly entrenched in this world of Panem, which might not benefit movie goers who are coming in blind. Then again, I did not come in blind, so I could be wrong. Writer-director Gary Ross, who adapted the screenplay alongside author Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, does a great job with this multi-layered adaptation, which doesn't drag one single bit and will have even die-hard fans of the book on the edge of their seats, even when they know exactly what will happen next.
This tale is set in the nation of Panem, which rose from the ashes of the United States after 13 districts rebelled against the government. After the 13th district was wiped out completely in the war, the 12 districts of Panem were formed, with the Capitol residing in what used to be the Rocky Mountains. Every year, each of the 12 districts are forced to send one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to compete in The Hunger Games, a nationally-televised event where these "tributes" fight to the death, with only one victor emerging. The story is told through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a District 12 resident who becomes the first "volunteer" tribute after her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is chosen at random, a move which most think seals her fate. She is joined by fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who she has a bizarre connection with, as they are whisked away to the Capitol to be trained by their mentor, the drunken Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who once won The Hunger Games many years ago. Even though Katniss is an extreme underdog at the beginning, going against "career tributes" who have been training for these games their entire lives, Katniss proves she is a force to be reckoned with.
Admittedly, I was rather surprised when they announced Gary Ross as the director of this adaptation, even before reading the book. The director of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit just didn't sound like the right fit for such a sprawling undertaking, but I was thoroughly impressed with his work, both in visual splendor and a narrative drive which captured the perfect moments from the book to include in this adaptation. Of course, much had to be discarded (thankfully, much of the "romance"), but I never had the feeling that something exceedingly important or cool was missing here. And still, even at a hefty 142 minutes, not a frame feels out of place, with a pace as brisk and effective as one of Katniss' arrows flying through the air, always on target. At the same time, there are still aspects I don't fully understand, like how a fight-to-the-death contest actually keeps a nation at bay, as the Capitol claims, or how this high-tech society can manufacture crazy rabid beasts, from the elaborate command center helmed by the Gamesmaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). Perhaps these aspects are explained more in the second and third books, but the tech and Panem backstory seem glossed over, likely as a byproduct of keeping The Hunger Games humming at a deft pace.
It was also a lot of fun to see these colorful characters (some who are literally quite colorful) come to life with an extraordinary cast. Jennifer Lawrence brings her Oscar-nominated chops to the incredibly complex Katniss, with a performance that will make her a star all over the world. Josh Hutcherson delivers a serviceable turn as Peeta Mellark, Woody Harrelson does a fine job as the drunkard Haymitch, and Lenny Kravitz brings a unique flair to the stylist Cinna, but it was fairly sad to see the talented Toby Jones only show up sporadically as Claudius Templesmith, and Donald Sutherland seems a little too aloof as Panem prez Corolianus Snow. Aside from Jennifer Lawrence, I was most impressed by the fabulously diverse Elizabeth Banks as the snobby Effie Trinket, the District 12 escort, and 13-year-old Amandla Stenberg, who plays the District 11 tribute Rue and truly shines on screen, particularly when teaming up with Katniss. I can't say there is a performance I disliked here, although there are a few who I wanted to see more than others. Also keep an eye out for Jack Quaid, son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, who makes his feature film debut as the spear-throwing District 1 tribute, Marvel.
Make no mistake about it, whether you like it or not, The Hunger Games is going to make a zillion dollars at the box office worldwide, which is even more impressive when you consider it's opening in March instead of the tentpole realm of summer. The Hunger Games not only takes us to a visually-stunning world, but it manages to lambast our society's obsession with any number of things, while, at the same time, giving us a practical, no-nonsense protagonist to root for. You're not rooting for Katniss because you want her to fall in love with Peeta, or even for her to win and pull her family out of the squalor that is their daily District 12 lives. You are rooting for Katniss because she feels so vibrantly real, and she's driven by something more grounded than getting that cute tribute to fall for her: she's driven by her unflinching will to survive, in an environment that almost guarantees that she won't.