The novel The Hunger Games conjures up fantastic images, struggles of life and death in a corrupt world, both on field and off. The film of the name manages that about sixty percent of the time, carrying the story but leaving off too much of the detail, some of which is simply unavoidable. It plays like a Cliff’s notes of the book, though too much of that discarded detail would bloat the film and sink it. It’s a damned project, but makes a fair go of it.
Panem, the fictional country rising from the remains of the United States and possibly Canada (I was never sure), hosts a tournament every year, the eponymous Hunger Games, wherein each of its twelve districts sacrifices two of its young as penance for an earlier revolt. These twenty-four children fight until only one survives. It’s a premise perfect in its simplicity for a young adult novel. Children are stolen from parents, sacrificed for a world they had no part in making. It’s all so unfair, as childhood so often is. There’s your story: now go.
Katniss Everdeen, of a hard luck family in coal-mining District 12, just barely provides for her family. She lives in a third-world state, where owning an animal like a goat is the difference between starvation and just enough. She, along with Peeta Mellark, represents her home in the Games. The rest of the movie prepares her for, and then drops her into, those Games, where the only goal is survival. She battles her fellow contestants, the elements, and even the machinations of the Capital, who need to make the Games as exciting as possible. Ratings count, even in a state-sponsored death tournament. You can guess enough of the outcome without me going into that.
The Hunger Games’ PG 13 rating hampers its action terribly. It falls into the shaky-cam trap in each and every fight scene, blurring them beyond any ability to make out its participants. Much of the violence takes place off-screen, but this is also due to the limited narrative of the movie, sticking with its star the whole way through. Rarely is Jennifer Lawrence away from the camera. Some of the effects are likely impossible to reproduce with the majesty described in the books, but the “Girl on Fire” was particularly underwhelming. Lawrence appears to be backlit by a butane torch during this scene. There are creatures so meticulously described in the book, as well, that they couldn’t be but disappointing rendered by CGI.
I give the filmmakers credit, though, for making no more of the story’s romance angle than need be. In other hands, this could have inflated out of proportion and dominated the foreground. Hopefully, the franchise sticks by this decision in the wake of director Gary Ross’s departure. Katniss’s relationship with her sister, though, has too little time to play out and it negatively affects her relationship with Roux, the youngest tribute. It has too little time to develop and comes to a close without the proper impact. Again, underwhelming when compared to its source material.
Lawrence handles her part very well, from Katniss’s awkwardness with people to her comfort alone in wooded surroundings. She seems confident when she knows her element, self-conscious when out of it. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch goes through his trademark drunkenness a little too cleanly. I chalk this up to the rating, too. My only gripe with Elizabeth Banks’s casting is that she’s too young for the way I envisioned Effie Trinket. She seems a little too smooth, even caked in makeup as she is. She’s great in the part, just too young and pretty, if you can call that a complaint. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is good as the quiet, strong, resigned Peeta. He brings the right amount of stoicism and pent up emotion to the role.
The Hunger Games works as an action film but falls short of its roots. It needed a harder rating to properly showcase its world and bring out the hardness its inhabitants have to embrace in order to survive. I don’t expect that to change in its sequels, but I enjoyed what the film was able to give. 3 ½ stars