Movie Review: Beating the Odds

Jennifer Lawrence is the Girl on Fire in the thrilling, captivating and emotional The Hunger Games.


In an unspecified future, a post-disaster North America has become the feudalistic nation of Panem, with twelve districts surrounding and providing for the decadent One-Percenters of the Capitol. As punishment for a crushed rebellion by the districts 75 years prior, the Capitol began a yearly event called the Hunger Games, wherein one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district were chosen as “tribute” to participate in a televised fight to the death, with the victor being the last one left alive. In the impoverished coal-mining District 12, 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is chosen on her first entry into the Games’ lottery. Her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to replace her and travels with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) to the Capitol where they are overseen by district liaison Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), mentored by former District 12 winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and made over for the cameras by stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Katniss and Peeta face the unenviable task of defeating not only 22 other teenagers, but also deciding whether or not to trust each other.

You can do a lot with only three arrows. And an apple.

Suzanne CollinsHunger Games trilogy is the latest wildly successful young-adult book series to hit the globe, with millions of books sold worldwide and a massive buildup of anticipation for the film adaptation. As directed by Gary Ross and written by Ross, Billy Ray and Collins herself, The Hunger Games is a near-perfect conversion from book to film. It’s as thrilling, captivating and immediate as the book, while streamlining the narrative and cast to fit the conventions of cinema.

Director Ross, best known for Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, handles the material surprisingly well, if not always brilliantly. He’s never less than skillful and adds a number of inventive and clever angles to presenting the material. Nobody will ever accuse him of being a visionary, and he doesn’t seem to have a distinctive style of his own here, but he has a strong handle on the material and clear control of what’s on screen. He obviously cares about presenting Collins’ work as faithfully as possible, while also making sure that the material works as a film by itself.

Casting America’s Next Top Fascist Government Pawn.

The main problem with adapting the book is the fact that it’s told entirely from Katniss’ point of view, with her internal monologue divulging all of the setting information and back story. Ross and Collins get around this by starting the film with a short text crawl prologue and by the presentation of a propaganda film during the District 12 “Reaping” when the tributes are chosen. Additional information is relayed through interviews with people at the Capitol and through the banter between the Games’ emcees (a pitch-perfect Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones). All of it comes through organically and easily, with none of it feeling forced. In fact, the whole movie unfurls easily and effortlessly, with every moment carefully constructed and every emotion scored square.

Ross keeps his camera focused on Katniss, however, and the film is still squarely in her point of view, sometimes literally. There is plenty of shaky-cam work to indicate panic or flight, with the steadiness of the frame matching Katniss’ relative state of calm. Sound and light fluctuate with Katniss’ perception of things. When Katniss damages her ear in an explosion, there’s almost a full minute of high-pitched noise on the soundtrack to simulate tinnitus. When she’s on stage for her pre-games interviews, the crowd noise evolves into a monophonic drone and blurs into a mass of random colors. An early fight sequence is scored solely by frightening, atonal, disorienting music with no incidental noise.

The Girl on Fire and the Emcee on Ecstasy.

Casting Katniss means casting an actress who’s able to convey the depths and breadth of Katniss’ thoughts silently and externally, and we could hope for no better actress than Jennifer Lawrence. In a role that’s in many ways similar to the Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence perfectly displays both Katniss’ strength and vulnerability in equal measures. At 16, Katniss has had to become the head of her family after her father dies in a mining accident and her mother becomes shellshocked. Katniss has the bearing of someone who’s had to grow up too soon and doesn’t always deal well with emotions. Lawrence conveys a massive amount of information with a simple movement of the eyes or a slight quaver at the end of a sentence, and she effortlessly draws the audience into her struggle.

The rest of the film is nearly perfectly cast, as well. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is hard to pin down, and like in the book, continually reveals new facets of his personality. Unlike Katniss, who’s skilled with a bow and is an excellent hunter, Peeta’s strengths lie in sociality and presentation. He’s stronger and much more clever than he appears, and Hutcherson knows exactly how to play him. Peeta first comes off as a simpleton, but he quickly becomes one of the savviest players in the Games. Lenny Kravitz is smooth and calm as Cinna, a welcome tonic amongst the chaos and confusion in the Capitol for both the tributes and for the audience. Elizabeth Banks’ Effie is a garish character with an appearance that can charitably be described as “loud.” Like the rest of the Capitol, she looks like Jean-Paul Gaultier went nuclear over Whoville, but Banks never makes her too shrill or silly. Even though she’s the closest thing to a comic relief character, she still has plenty of dimensions. Woody Harrelson is the ideal choice for Haymitch, who starts the film as a jaded alcoholic and sobers up as the film goes on, and it appears that this year one of his tributes just might make it out alive.

Peeta, once again in need of saving from a girl with a bow.

A lot has been made over the book’s resemblance to the Japanese book/film/manga/cult sensation Battle Royale, which also features teenagers fighting to the death in a dystopian near-future, but the comparison is only superficial. Games is as similar to Royale as Royale is to The Most Dangerous Game, Lord of the Flies or The Running Man. In reality, and as Collins herself has often cited, it’s really a spin on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, coupled with the totalitarian futures of The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four, with a little bit of Les Miserables (bread factors into a major, early plot point).

While the series has also been compared to Twilight, the comparison ends and begins with its sales figures. The romantic triangle that forms the crux and entire purpose of the Twilight series is only an addendum here, in a science-fiction parable of greed and exploitation. The character of Gale, Katniss’ best friend in District 12 and played in the film by Liam Hemsworth, is only briefly seen or mentioned, and Katniss’ relationship with Peeta is corrupted by the fact that it’s being played up for the games in order to win audience sympathy. Katniss is much more concerned with staying alive and feeding her family than wondering which handsome, glowering boy is going to be her abusive boyfriend/husband. At the midnight screening at Showplace Icon in Minneapolis, which doesn’t allow anyone under the age of 17 into showings after 7 pm, the teaser trailer for Breaking Dawn: Part 2 was greeted with boos, jeers and universal derision by a sold-out theatre.

Take that, Bella Swan.

The film isn’t perfect, however. Understandably, the violence in the book had to be toned down to score a PG-13 rating, which was necessary to even get the film greenlit in the first place. While the violence is not as gory or graphic as Collins’ portrayal in the novel, the film is still essentially about 24 teenagers being forced to kill each other for a ravenous, spectacle-hungry crowd who sees them less as people and more as video game characters. There are moments of harsh brutality that, while necessary, could be jarring, particularly in the first moments of the Games themselves, which turns into a bloodbath. The “career tributes” of District 1 come off as simple psychopaths when the truth of their situation is a little deeper, although their portrayal is understandable as seen through Katniss’ point of view. Similarly, the relationship between Katniss and District 11 tribute Rue seems less developed than the book but still has a strong, emotional resonance and Amandla Stenberg plays her with the right amount of naiveté and pluck. And despite an excellent dramatic personae, the only cast member who seems entirely superfluous is Wes Bentley, bringing his signature noncommittal blandness to the role of Gamemaster Seneca Crane, a character brought in from later books in the series.

If you’re a fan of the series, rest assured that the film completely does the book justice, minor adaptation decay aside. If you’re new to the series, rest assured that there is enough information in the film to stand on its own without prior knowledge of the setting (but you really should go read the book anyway). Despite its varying and myriad inspirations from other works, it manages to not seem derivative, even if it never seems wholly original. It’s a syncretic convergence that’s held together entirely by the character of Katniss Everdeen and, subsequently, by Jennifer Lawrence’s searing performance. She is Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, and the film is just as incendiary as she is.

Rating: 8 out of 10 / A-

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and barely survived the fight in the Cornucopia. <a href="; title="imageimage

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