Editor’s note: This review was first published March 23, 2012.
‘Hunger Games’ a slow start to trilogy
In the details both omitted and inserted, the theatrical version of “The Hunger Games” at times captures the brutal story that has entrapped a nation of readers. It’s shown in a scene where the story’s lethally effective heroine, Katniss Everdeen (“Winter’s Bone’s” Jennifer Lawrence), races through a dark, dangerous forest, falls down and rolls to the hill’s bottom only to leap back to her feet and plunge into the unknown. It’s shown in the talent with which Katniss wields her bow, inspired no doubt by Diana’s legendary will and ferocity.
Sadly, these scenes pass too quickly, and Suzanne Collin’s heroine becomes something less than herself, someone less imposing and unacceptably softer, a sanitized version, if you will. Whether director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit” and a thoroughly ill-matched choice if there ever was one) naturally was at odds with such rough material is anyone’s guess. But in effect, what should have been jagged has been smoothed, what should have been cringe-inducing merely elicited gasps.
Still, despite Ross’ gentle handling, Lawrence’s Katniss — a brilliant creation by Collins, a female warrior stripped of unneeded sentimentality and sexuality — is a tour de force, and your interest will be held thanks in large part to this performance. It’s rather stunning, actually, that a girl so off-putting can take up so much screen space. She’s larger than life, even if she would never admit it.
It’s a sign of hope for the coming sequels (“Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay”), for which Ross is on board to direct.
The screenplay by Ross, Collins and Billy Ray adheres to its source material, if mostly in wide strokes. Katniss lives in District 12 of Panem, a totalitarian state that emerged in place of a war-torn North America. Each year, a boy and girl, ages 12 to 18, are chosen from each Panem district to compete in a Roman Coliseum/gladiator-style event called the Hunger Games. It’s a bit of a mash-up between the Roman blood sport and the Greek myth of submitting tributes to the Minotaur.
The film begins at the Reaping, a gleefully morbid and televised selection process for the Games. With armed soldiers, a bubbly emcee (Elizabeth Banks) announces Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’ younger sister, has been chosen. Katniss quickly volunteers to take her place. She, along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), become the district’s Tributes.
The two are then taken to the Capitol, where they’re beautified by a team of gaudy stylists, led by a sympathetic Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). The scene should have been the epitome of the danger-lurking-behind-the-scenes mentality the Capitol represents. Katniss is always in danger while here, but you would never know it.
But it doesn’t take long for that to change. Soon, the two Tributes, along with the 22 from the other districts, are placed into the outdoor area, armed with only their wits and an arsenal of weapons located right in front of them, where they must battle each other and the traps set by the game makers (of which Wes Bentley is one).
In a chaotic scene of murder and flight, a massacre unfolds within seconds. The boys and girls are cut down in a blur as they reach for the weapons they feel will protected them. But not Katniss and Peeta: They follow the advice of their mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and run in the opposite direction. It’s a visceral scene, one which accurately displays the horror of what’s happening in brutal, unyielding terms.
From here, though, the dangers flees faster than Katniss, and director Ross never manages to catch up with it. He fails to materialize the emotion so effectively embedded in Collins’ trilogy: the drama and elation of growing up and all that goes with it translated into brutal sport.
But again, the character of Katniss comes to the rescue, mostly because she doesn’t need to be rescued. With guts, ingenuity and perfect aim, she saves herself over and over again, making her truly watchable, despite Lawrence’s less-than-stellar performance. (A shame, considering her breakout performance in “Winter’s Bone,” for which she was nominated for an Oscar.)
In the end, it’s the story that saves this movie, the story of a warrior heroine who pushes, battered and bruised, to a future she doesn’t know or understand. She fights for a world not yet here. She’s a symbol of hope for a people who so desperately need it. She’s the hero we all need.
Three dystopian stars out of five.