Committed fans of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult novels—and they are legion—will probably be thrilled that Gary Ross’ filmization of the first of them—co-scripted by the author herself (who also served as an executive producer)—appears to be extremely faithful to the book. But to an uninitiated viewer, while adequately done in a dutiful, methodical style, “The Hunger Games” never really gets the adrenaline rushing as it should.
Part of the problem is that the story doesn’t feel all that fresh. In some dystopian land (the where and when is deliberately vague), twelve district once rebelled against the central government, which crushed the revolt. As part of the peace settlement, each of them must provide two “tributes”—one boy and one girl, selected by lot—to fight in a winner-take-all televised death match that’s become the nation’s biggest annual event. The focus is on the two tributes from District 12, an impoverished region of mine workers. The boy is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the quiet, thoughtful son of the town baker. And the girl is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a vivacious huntress who volunteers to replace her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) when she has the dubious luck of the draw.
The two are brought to the capital city by Effie Trinkel (Elizabeth Banks), a member of the production crew whose flamboyant is exceeded only by the co-hosts of the extravaganza, Caesar Fickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones). There they’re turned over for training to the drunken “mentor” Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). But their chances are deemed remote because the contestants from District 1, led by the pitiless Cato (Alexander Ludwig) are virtual professionals, having trained for years as bloodthirsty volunteers.
All of this—plus a bit of information on the behind-the-scenes political machinations between cynical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and game director Seneca (Wes Bentley)—is handled over the first half of the 142-minute movie. The major contrast here is the contrast between the grim, hopeless atmosphere of District 12, which looks like something out of Depression-era West Virginia, and the gleaming Capital, which—in the elaborate array of sets and costumes provided by production designer Philip Messina, supervising art director John Collins, a quintet of set designers and decorators, and costume designer Julianna Makouvsky, is faintly reminiscent of the look of Luc Besson’s “Fifth Element.”
At the seventy-minute mark, however, the contestants are released into the forest to target one another with sword, knife, bow-and-arrows and whatever other tools their masters provide. Though there are periodic brief cutaways to Seneca’s strategic control room, the spotlight remains pretty firmly on Katniss as she’s pursued by Cato and his allies, enters into an alliance with tyke contestant Rue (Amandla Stenberg) that’s fated to end tragically, and—most important of all—gets romantically involved with a wounded Peeta, who’s revealed in the prelims to the hunt that he’s always had a crush on her and led the promoters to dub the duo a pair of star-crossed lovers.
Throughout this section of the film Ross, cinematographer Tom Stern and editors Stephen Monroe and Juliette Welfling keep the action clear and cautious in terms of suitability for adolescent viewing. There’s none of the famously gruesome violence of the similarly-themed Japanese flick “Battle Royale,” which is at once a strength and a liability—a positive boxoffice-wise in insuring that the target audience won’t be turned away by an R rating, but a weakness in conveying the horror of the entire enterprise.
The one ingredient both here and in the earlier half of the film that can be described as outstanding is Lawrence, who follows up her remarkable turn in “Winter’s Bone” with a performance that conveys the character’s strength and vulnerability in equal measure. None of the other young actors comes close to matching her; Hutcherson offers little beyond sturdiness (though that’s partially the result of the fact that compared to Katniss, Peeta is pretty much a stick), Rue brings a waifish sadness but no more, and Ludwig is a standard-issue jerk jock. Fairing even worse is Liam Hemsworth in the thankless part of Gale, the guy who pines for Katniss back home.
The adults have more of an opportunity to make an impression, though for most not through subtlety. Tucci mugs through his role as a pitchman, and Harrelson isn’t far behind as the soused Haymitch. But Sutherland brings a smarmy Machiavellian feel to Snow, and Lenny Kravitz brings a genial gravity to Cinna, Katniss’ supportive stylist. Complementing the visuals is James Newton Howard’s score, which like most everything in the picture is serviceable rather than inspired.
Indeed, if there’s one word that pretty much encapsulates “The Hunger Games,” it would be “efficient.” There’s a dogged, careful feel to the picture that reflects the fact that the makers realized that they could make a mint from such a popular property if only they didn’t stray too far from readers’ expectations. The result is that fans of Collins’ book should be satisfied that it has been brought to the screen with dedication and taste, if not much imagination. This film does the obvious well enough, but except for Lawrence’s stirring turn never goes beyond that.