One of the most common ways for an ambitious film to falter is when one tries to cater to too many demographics. Normally when you have a film that showcases romance (for the young women group), action (for the young men group) and social commentary (for the indy crowd) the film falls apart under its lofty ambitions, as it can never give enough time to each component. The Hunger Games (adapted from Suzanne Collins’ bestselling book) falls for this trap. Yet the film not only comes out alive, but also delivers one of the most fascinating survival thrillers in a year jam-packed with them (The Grey and The Hunter to name a few). Through some sturdy direction from Gary Ross and a phenomenal performance from Jennifer Lawrence that grounds the entire film, The Hunger Games is able to navigate through many genres without ever losing its way.
For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who is selected to compete in a fight to the death event known as the Hunger Games in a futuristic land known as Panem. Suzanne Collins actually adapted her own book for the big screen with some help from Billy Ray (State of Play) and the film’s director Gary Ross. I have not read the book so I can’t speak for what was left out and what was added to the film, but I can tell you this film works as a standalone more than any of the popular young adult novels that have been translated to the big screen in recent years. There is a distinct beginning, middle, and (most importantly) end. While seeds are dropped for the imminent sequel in the last act, it never feels like a sequel is absolutely necessary to see these characters’ journeys end. This may be one of the more important strengths this film has as the stakes seem that much greater with an end in sight. The writers also seem to have corralled all of the different plot elements (the romance, the action, the political intrigue) into something that works. While some of the elements work better than others, all of these elements come across as necessary to the plot.
One of the bigger problems franchises like this has is that the studio has too much control over the final product. All of the great sci-fi/fantasy adaptations in the past decade or so have all had one thing in common: a powerful or creative director who can counteract the control of the studios. Just look at Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy or Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to see how a great director can expand upon good source material. While Gary Ross has neither the talent nor power those two have, Ross is able to insert his own style between the limits the studio has set. Somewhere out there, there must be a three-hour cut of this thing that provides much greater (and necessary) depth to the supporting characters. The film also would have had much greater impact if the brutality of the game matched the realism that is portrayed elsewhere in the film. Unfortunately, to the studio this would all mean getting less showings in per day and less kids coming to the theater have their parents shell out money for them. Yet Ross is able to portray a sense of realism with his own visual style (the shaky cam is a nice touch) and he is able to hone in on the facial movements of his actors (thus capturing emotions that would take an entire page to explain in a book).
However, Ross’ job is a lot easier with such a talented cast. Jennifer Lawrence seems perfect for the role of Katniss Everdeen. At its essence, the role is very similar to her Oscar-nominated work on Winter’s Bone. There’s an immense amount of physical work (all done superbly) and the role requires maturity beyond her years mentality (which Lawrence captures with ease). Yet this film adds some fireworks to the subtly that she so aptly displayed in that film. Lawrence is stunningly good at transitioning from this subtle style of acting to a louder style. Woody Harrelson (who is funny but able to take his one-dimensional character up a notch), Elizabeth Banks (completely unrecognizable), Liam Hemsworth (who has great chemistry with Lawrence in his limited screentime), Lenny Kravitz (in a surprisingly good turn), Donald Sutherland (his scariest role in some time) and Stanley Tucci (being Stanley Tucci-good and having fun at it) all deliver great supporting performances to back up Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen’s fellow competitors are severely underwritten but that doesn’t mean they aren’t well acted. Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Furhman and Amandla Stenberg all try their best (and to some degree succeed) in trying to make actual characters out of their paper-thin cutouts. The only weak link here is Josh Hutcherson who is unable to convey the charisma that Peeta is supposed to have.
There are many things that can be nitpicked in this film. It is by no means perfect, but if you just put your faith in Jennifer Lawrence’s star making performance you will come out just fine.