Now that virtually every blockbuster movie opens in IMAX, going to an IMAX theatre at this time of year provides a de facto trailer festival for an entire summer of (seemingly) more or less mindless spectacle. As The Avengers blends into Dark Shadows morphs into Men In Black 3 becomes The Amazing Spider-Man, the serious, relatively human-scaled drama of THE HUNGER GAMES, as flawed as portions of it are in Gary Ross’ film, becomes more and more clearly something to be valued.
For those residing in a cave, Hunger Games is based on the first volume of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of sci-fi tinged social commentary: in a future version of America called Panem, the central government demonstrates its domination of the nation’s 12 outlying districts by staging a nationally-televised duel to the death among 2 “tributes” from each district, young people aged 12 to 18, only one of whom will be permitted to survive. The story centers on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year old who volunteers to serve as the female representative of her Appalachian district in order to take the place of her 12-year old sister, whose name had been drawn by lot. Katniss has to battle the predations of the Capitol’s game designers, who can unleash floods, fires and genetically designed mutant beasts at will, as well as the variously bloodthirsty representatives of the other 11 districts and her increasingly complicated relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her male counterpart from District 12.
Collins’ book isn’t a model of literary style, and it lacks the spectacular imagination of the Harry Potter series, but it’s a rousing, tough-minded, compulsive page-turner, and so is Ross’ film, which has a script adapted by Ross, Collins and Billy Ray. Ross, like Collins, does craftsmanlike work–he doesn’t go out of his way to put a directorial imprint or excessive stylization on the material, and that’s mostly to the good. He adopts a straightforward, mostly stripped-down visual style (his cinematographer is Tom Stern, who’s shot 10 films for Clint Eastwood) that doesn’t blow the action up to mega-proportion a la Michael Bay, or press down hard on the story’s emotions in a Spielbergian way.
Ross also made one crucially right decision: casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. In a way, this was a no-brainer, since Katniss can be seen as the action-movie version of Ree, the role in Winter’s Bone that won Lawrence an Oscar nomination. Apart from hailing from the same part of the country, both girls are strong, clenched with determination (and self-doubt) and a fierce drive, and both require an actress who can express a range of emotions behind a flat refusal to express any. Lawrence has this rare ability, and she holds every inch of Hunger Games.
The first half of the film, which covers Katniss’ joining the Games and the training/publicity period in the Capitol, smoothly covers all the high points of that section of the novel, and although there are times when it would be nice if Ross were more gifted visually (he completely bungles the parade of the Tributes into the Capitol, which is neither spectacular, coherent or informative), for the most part he makes his way efficiently through the material. It was a wise decision to reduce the farcial element of unreliable mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, excellent) and his drunkenness, and to reduce the garish Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) entirely.
Where the movie falters is in the second half: the Games themselves. Collins’ novel is told entirely in Katniss’ first-person narration, and thus it’s easy enough for her to convey every step of Katniss’ strategies, thought processes and emotions. Ross, Collins and Ray haven’t figured out how to convey the same critical information in other ways, and as a result, it’s often unclear just where things are geographically, which combatants are still alive, or just why Katniss acts as she does. The script attempt to compensates for some of this by building up a few of the Capitol characters, particularly the President (Donald Sutherland) and Game Designer (Wes Bentley), and uses commentators Caesar (Stanley Tucci) and Claudius (Toby Jones) to handle some of the exposition, but none of them are developed satisfyingly.
Most of Katniss’ opinions about her opponents are gone, lowering the stakes of the confrontations between them. The romantic portion of the story is a particular mess, because in the novel Katniss is trying to balance her calculation of Peeta’s motives, her own schemes and her very uncertain emotions, all of which are constantly shifting–Lawrence can do a lot with very little dialogue, but she can’t quite pull that off. Partly as a result, Peeta, not the strongest character to begin with, comes across as wimpy more than anything else. (His romantic rival Gale, played by Liam Hemsworth, is barely in the movie after the first half-hour.)
Perhaps worst of all, there are 2 particularly bad moves exactly at the climax: a severe toning down of the final challenge facing the tributes, which in the novel was genuinely grisly and disturbing (and may have been changed to retain a PG-13 rating), but in the film is a generic action scene, and then a ham-handed speech inserted for one of Katniss’ opponents at a moment when dialogue wasn’t needed.
These shortcomings aside, Hunger Games still has plenty to recommend it. Although Ross’s work may lack visual grandeur, the film has a very fine, surprisingly varied score by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard, and the editing by Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling keeps the 142 minute running time hopping. Philip Messina’s production design effectively captures the Capitol’s opulence without becoming Felliniesque.
Compared to the other franchises whose box-office class it will almost certainly join, Hunger Games is superior to the first 2 Harry Potter movies but probably not to the later installments, while it’s infinitely better than anything that goes by the name Twilight. It’s a worthy, gripping thriller that has more on its mind than most of its blockbuster brethren, and it features a great movie-star performance at its core.