Excitement was rampant at a March 23rd midnight showing of The Hunger Games (Lionsgate Films), director Gary Ross’s highly anticipated adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s bestselling dystopian novel. Before 11:30pm the theater was already packed, and our mostly undergrad-aged audience was impatiently waiting to see Katniss, the Capitol, and the Games brought to the big screen.
The film opens with the text of the Treaty of Treason, explaining the history of the Hunger Games. As fans of the trilogy know, the post-apocalyptic Panem was reformed from decimated North America as a powerful and wealthy Capitol ringed by thirteen districts. Approximately seventy-five years ago, the Capitol squashed a rebellion and destroyed District 13. In retribution for the rebellion, the Capitol now requires each district to send a boy and girl to fight to the death in its annual televised Hunger Games spectacular.
Sixteen-year-old protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to compete in the Games when her younger sister Prim is selected. To her dismay, the male tribute is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son to whom Katniss feels indebted. The pair is whisked away to the Capitol to be primped, interviewed, and trained. The thoughtfully designed Depression-era costuming and scenery of the impoverished districts contrasts starkly with the Capitol, almost alien with its garish colors, Lady Gaga-esque fashions, and ultra-high technology.
The Gamemakers’ highest priority is to put on a good show — usually meaning the bloodier, the better — and winning means manipulating the viewers as well as outlasting other tributes. Prickly, self-reliant Katniss is well prepared to survive in the arena, but she struggles to create a persona that will inspire sponsors to help her. In his pre-Games interview, however, Peeta is a showstopper: claiming he has a long-term crush on Katniss, he introduces the tantalizing idea of romance between tributes.
Once inside the outdoor arena, Katniss and Peeta get separated in an initial bloodbath at the supply-filled cornucopia. Shaky camera work during the first disorienting moments of the Games emphasizes Katniss’s panic (and tactfully obscures many of the early deaths). As Katniss gets away from the melee and deeper into the arena, sweeping shots of the forested landscape illustrate both the arena’s incredible size and how capable Katniss is there. Scenes of the Gamemakers and their technicians using a fascinating interactive digital/holographic gameboard to design and control the arena are interspersed with events (like a firestorm) they set in motion. The pride the Gamemakers clearly take in their work underscores their disconnection from (and cruelty toward) those they oppress in the Districts.
As the Games wear on, Katniss copes with injuries and burns, the highly trained “Career” tributes, Peeta’s apparent alliance with the Careers, hallucinogenic poison from “tracker jacker” wasp stings, and a brief, heartbreaking alliance with younger tribute Rue (Amandla Stenberg). With only a handful of tributes still alive, the Gamemakers announce that two tributes may win if they are from the same district. Katniss finds Peeta suffering from a badly infected wound and risks an obvious trap to obtain medicine, mindful that their relationship means survival for them both. Incredibly, Peeta and Katniss are the last two tributes standing — and then the Gamemakers revoke their new rule, insisting that only one tribute can be victor.
Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, The Burning Plain) embodies heroine Katniss with grace and strength. While much hype has been made of the love triangle among Katniss, fellow tribute Peeta, and her best friend/hunting partner Gale, Lawrence’s most wrenching scenes are the ones in which Katniss interacts with (or even just speaks about) her sister Prim, her mother, or Rue. Lawrence admirably captures Katniss’s heady combination of determination to protect her family and rage at their circumstances, without dragging down the few lighter moments she’s allowed.
Josh Hutcherson is no stranger to children’s lit movie adaptations (Bridge to Terabithia, Zathura, Howl’s Moving Castle). As earnest, compassionate Peeta, Hutcherson is a bit too earnest, occasionally verging on cheesy — several of his more serious moments elicited giggles from our audience. Liam Hemsworth as stoic Gale is compelling (and more convincing), but as a District 12 character has few scenes and even fewer lines.
Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, a hard-drinking previous District 12 winner who’s now forced to act as Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, strikes a perfect balance between infuriating and charming. Glimpses of Haymitch’s tireless behind-the-scenes work to keep the pair alive, soliciting donations of food, medicine, and weapons to send to Katniss and Peeta, hint at his affection for them as well as his own disturbing experiences in the Games.
The film is faithful to the novel (not surprising, as author Suzanne Collins herself wrote the screenplay with Ross). The few changes to the plot mostly enhance the story by deepening relationships between characters. Rather than receiving her signature mockingjay pin from an acquaintance, Katniss gives it to Prim, claiming nothing can harm her as long as she wears it. After Katniss volunteers as tribute, Prim returns the pin to her as a token of protection during the Games. Rue has a more significant role than in the novel, highlighting her strengths as an ally: her intelligence, resourcefulness, and climbing prowess. Katniss finds the hope and comfort Rue offers even more valuable than Rue’s skills.
Several elements of the later books — such as President Snow’s anger at Katniss’s insubordination at the end of the Games, Gamemaker Seneca Crane’s fate, uprisings in the districts (specifically District 11) — are integrated into this first movie. While these details do not appear in the novel, their inclusion here subtly builds toward events to come in later films.
One disappointing difference from the novel: the love story between Peeta and Katniss is much more straightforward, losing much of its tension and complexity. Peeta’s motives are never really in question (for the audience, and even Katniss); Katniss’s own doubts about her relationship with Gale and the love-crazed role she has feigned in order to survive are downplayed. Katniss never admits to Peeta that she’s unsure how much she truly feels for him. Simplifying their relationship flattens the range of both characters and their dynamic.
A few other notable dark aspects from the novel are missing as well, perhaps in order to meet requirements for a PG-13 rating or to streamline the plot. As in the novel, Avoxes (slaves whose tongues were cut out as punishment for treason) serve Katniss in the Capitol, but there is no explanation for their presence or their silence. The dog-like “muttations” which are the arena’s final challenge are definitely frightening, but there’s no indication that they are reanimated/genetically modified dead tributes as they are in the novel. Though he is bitten by one of these muttations at the film’s climax, Peeta does not lose his leg as a result. In fact, Peeta and Katniss both leave the arena relatively unscathed — physically, at least.
With The Hunger Games enjoying a record-breaking opening weekend and the second movie, Catching Fire, already in the works, this promises to be an overwhelmingly successful franchise for director Gary Ross and Lionsgate. This well-executed first film assures that the odds for excellent sequels are definitely in fans’ favor.