While The Hunger Games is not a non-stop fight-to-the-death action film, it succeeds at being something even more interesting.
Following the conclusion of the Harry Potter and Twilight book series, which wrapped-up in 2007 and 2008 respectively, Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games became the next "big thing" for young adult fiction readers. However, much like the darker themes presented in the later Harry Potter installments, The Hunger Games explores some especially heavy material - making it a go-to book series for not just young adults, but plenty of readers who also enjoy deeper literary offerings. As a result, it's no surprise that The Hunger Games film adaptation has, for some time, been one of the most anticipated movie events of 2012 - setting records for pre-release ticket sales and opening weekend sold-out shows.
That said, does writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit and Pleasantville - not to mention writing credits on Big, Dave, and Mr. Baseball) ultimately deliver a Hunger Games film adaptation that accurately transports fan-favorite characters and events onto the big screen - as well as offering up an entertaining movie experience for audience members who haven't bothered with the books?
Despite a few hiccups that come with distilling a 350 page book (told in first person) into a two hour and twenty minute film, The Hunger Games is not only a solid adaptation of the source material - it succeeds at covering a copious amount of backstory, while at the same time delivering some genuinely entertaining (and at times, thrilling) moments, even for those who are still unfamiliar with the book series. The Hungers Games books are jam-packed with supporting characters and in-depth mythos - and so is the film adaptation (at times to a fault).
The basic story takes place in a dystopian future where the Capitol rules over the country of Panem (in what used to be North America) - and uses "The Hunger Games" to suppress the surrounding districts. Each year, the Capitol randomly selects one girl and boy from each of the twelve districts to participate in the Hunger Games - where the 24 "tribute" children fight to the death until only one remains.
When young Primrose Everdeen is chosen as tribute at the District 12 "reaping," her big sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers to fight in her place. Katniss is joined by fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a strong but insecure baker's son, and the two embark on a (one way?) trip to the Capitol to face off against the other district tributes (as well as one another). However, with guidance from District 12 resident (and previous Hunger Games winner) Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss and Peeta quickly discover that to survive the games they'll need more than just fast feet and good aim.
The central storyline from the books remains intact for the film adaptation, as Katniss attempts to make sense of her situation - both in terms of attempting to survive the Hunger Games (inside and outside of the arena), as well as the difference between illustrious Capitol life and the stark poverty she experienced back home in District 12. Katniss requires a lot from Lawrence (both physically and emotionally) and, as usual, the actress delivers a good, nuanced performance. While the role isn't likely to get her another "Best Actress" nomination at the Oscars, she does more with this genre piece than most of her peers might have attempted (just as she did with Mystique in X-Men: First Class).
There's little doubt that some moviegoers will dismiss The Hunger Games as the next Twilight saga - in terms of the quality of the acting and production values. However, as we addressed in our article detailing "5 Facts About ‘The Hunger Games’ Movie for Those Who Haven’t Read the Books," Ross actually lined up a lot of top-tier acting talent (up-and-comers as well as Hollywood veterans) to ground the horrific events depicted in The Hunger Games with believable (and meaningful) performances. Hutcherson (as fellow tribute Peeta) also succeeds in keeping up with Lawrence - presenting one of the more interesting characters in the film (even with a pink-haired Elizabeth Banks and drunk Woody Harrelson running around); Hutcherson also delivers during a pair of especially contemplative moments.
Unfortunately, even Peeta isn't safe from the book-to-film adaptation process - as many side characters are left entirely undeveloped or presented with somewhat muddled motivations. The scope of the film leaves some character actions and motivations a bit vague, which will cause non-fans to leave the theater with a mixed impression of who they are. In the case of Peeta, despite a full character arc that works on the surface level, his in-arena motivations aren't nearly as cohesive (or as interesting) as they are in the source material. In addition, the "Mockingjay," which has major thematic importance (not to mention practical application) in the book series goes almost entirely undeveloped in the film, and despite a lot of onscreen time that's spent on the subject, doesn't ever come full-circle. These aren't just "adaptation" nitpicks, in terms of what is shown on screen - the film leaves plotholes that could be confusing for general audiences (given the time that was spent setting them up).
Similarly, with one or two exceptions, the non-District 12 tributes are mostly just blank caricatures that leave next-to-no emotional impact as either victims or villains. Obviously, with 24 tributes, not to mention a number of non-Games side characters, it would be hard to get to know everyone (a lot of the kids are throwaways in the book); however, as a film (as opposed to a book - where Katniss is limited to first person), the experience could have benefited from a bit more time spent with a few other tributes - so that as they attempt to slaughter (or help) Katniss, they'd have more impact than just the immediate onscreen action. It's a tricky balance, and though the director succeeds overall, there are times when The Hunger Games seems more concerned with building up the larger world in preparation for a sequel, than fully serving some of the moments and characters featured in the current installment. That said, Ross does succeed in utilizing the film medium for the better, such as when he makes up for the lack of Katniss' internal thoughts by smartly implementing external sources for much needed exposition (via the game announcers and production team).
It needs to be said that some moviegoers - those expecting an epic action movie experience - may also find that the film drags (especially in Act 2), given the lengthy run time. Anyone interested in the series mythos will be sated by seeing book characters re-imagined on the big screen, but prior to the actual Hunger Games, there are very few (read: zero) large-scale action pieces to break up all the world-building and exposition. Patient moviegoers will enjoy plenty of intriguing character drama, but there's no doubt that the film (like the books) relies heavily on the back end to hit its action quota. Ultimately, action fans may still be underwhelmed by the actual Games themselves.
Quick, frantic cuts probably helped the film maintain a PG-13 rating, given all the teenagers that die on camera, but as a result, the film is short on captivating battle choreography or epic one-on-one confrontations. Instead of large-scale action set pieces, The Hunger Games movie presents a story about Katniss surviving (and often hiding) - not outright hunting down her fellow tributes - and because of that, the Games portion (despite loads of tense moments) could prove to be underwhelming. In the end, the film is better off for the restraint that Ross employs - since it keeps the focus on Katniss and her plight (not over-the-top CGI explosions) - but it will limit the entertainment value of the onscreen action for some moviegoers.
As the first installment in what will be a four-part film series (based on a three-part book series), Ross has done a solid job establishing the series' major players, as well as the ins and outs of Panem society. Ultimately the director crams a lot of quality content into the film's two-hour twenty-minute runtime - though some plot threads, scenes, and characters are underserved by the movie's conclusion. While The Hunger Games is not a non-stop fight-to-the-death action film, it succeeds at being something even more interesting - a fascinating and disturbing (not to mention tense) character drama that successfully captures the core themes of the book.
If you’re still on the fence about The Hunger Games, check out the trailer below:
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out our Hunger Games episode of the SR Underground podcast.
If you want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven't seen it, please head over to our Hunger Games Spoiler Discussion!
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick - and let us know what you thought of the film below.
The Hunger Games is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens. Now playing in theaters.