When pundits started calling "The Hunger Games" the "new 'Twilight,'" fans of the former were about to break out the torches and pitchforks.
It's not because we're violent people; it's because "The Hunger Games" is the very antithesis of "Twilight." Instead of pining away for a sparkly vampire (or brawny werewolf), 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has taken care of her family since her father died in a mine explosion five years ago. Her sister, 12-year-old Primrose "Prim" (Willow Shields), is physically fragile, and her mother (Paula Malcomson) is mentally frail, so Katniss must be strong for them. She holds the family together and keeps them fed by illegally hunting game in the woods, trading for supplies, and entering her name into a raffle ("reaping") multiple times in exchange for grain rations.
Based on Suzanne Collins' young adult novel of the same name, "The Hunger Games" is set in postapocalyptic North America. There was an unsuccessful rebellion, so the Capitol nuked the bejeezus out of District 13 as a warning to the others. Only 12 districts remain. As a punishment, the Capitol chooses one boy and one girl, age 12 to 18, from each district every year, and the contestants ("tributes") must fight to the death in the Hunger Games until the sole victor remains.
As the movie begins, it's Reaping Day in District 12, which used to be Appalachia. Prim has only been entered into the drawing once because this is her first eligible year, but as luck would have it, she is chosen. Katniss, frantic with worry, volunteers to take her sister's place. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker's son, is the district's male tribute.
After the reaping, they are whisked away to the opulent Capitol, where PR guru Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and an intoxicated Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) mentor them. Up to this point, "The Hunger Games" has sounded like "Survivor" or "The Running Man," but since the Hunger Games is televised, there is also some pageantry involved, so we'll toss some "Project Runway" into the mix. Stylists prepare the tributes for television by making sure they're perfectly groomed and manicured. Katniss' stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), creates some outfits that make her memorable to the audience — and appealing to potential sponsors.
At the ripe old age of 21, Lawrence has already received an Oscar nod for her portrayal as Ozark native Ree Dolly in "Winter's Bone," where she also takes care of her poor family when her father goes missing. It's brilliant casting, and Lawrence, with her quiet intensity and youthful vulnerability, is really the only Hollywood actress who could've pulled off this role.
Fans of the book will find that Hutcherson's Peeta doesn't jive with their expectations. Here, he's an all-around nice guy; in the book, Katniss couldn't determine if it was a "nice guy" act to hide his ulterior motives. Given the film's simplified vision of the character, he does a good job of portraying a likeable guy who's stuck in a difficult situation.
Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is Katniss' best friend, confidant and hunting partner. In the book, Katniss starts to develop feelings for him before she leaves for the Hunger Games, but in the movie, he doesn't get much screen time. The film downplays this romantic triangle — the only element it has in common with "Twilight" — and that's probably for the best, to avoid further comparisons to that series.
Donald Sutherland is a great choice for President Coriolanus Snow. With his shock of white hair and intense gaze, Sutherland manages to embody the tyrannical leader.
The book is written in the first-person perspective, so readers get a lot of insight into Katniss' character. It makes everything more personal, and it resonates with the readers. Although the movie is a pretty faithful adaptation of the source material (thanks to director Gary Ross enlisting the author as one of the screenwriters), we're mere spectators, and we no longer know Katniss' thoughts.
Sometimes, the film assumes that you've read the book. After Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place, the emcee asks for a round of applause. The assembled audience of teenagers remains silent and then raises a three-finger salute toward the stage. Is it a sign of respect to Katniss? Is it a middle finger to the Capitol? The sign is used once more later in the film, and although you can infer its general meaning, moviegoers won't know for sure unless they've read the book or look it up.
Since the "Hunger Games" trilogy is written at the fifth-grade reading level, the target audience for the movie is everyone age 10 and up. Consequently, the film has a PG-13 rating, and there is very little bloodshed shown on-screen. Ross does a skillful job of filming some shots just so to minimize the impact of the tributes' deaths. Other times, shaky cam footage makes it difficult to see what even happened, but perhaps that's another "technique" to achieve its PG-13 rating.
"The Hunger Games" has already broken records for advance ticket sales for a non-sequel film, so it's poised to be a huge success, and for good reason. It is a good action movie, and Lawrence absolutely shines as Katniss. It's a faithful book adaptation, so both fans and newcomers will enjoy it; the missed literary allusions don't detract from one's enjoyment of the film. With this and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," we're getting a spate of strong female protagonists.
It's about time.
"The Hunger Games" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes. It is showing in 2-D and IMAX.
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