With book sales of more than 26 million for Suzanne Collins’ futuristic trilogy, a lot is riding on this initial film that introduces teen heroine Katniss Everdeen to audiences in what will be the first of at least three, possibly four, movies. Aimed at what marketers call the coveted “YA” or “young adult” market, the film has obviously been toned down from the book to earn the all-important PG-13 rating.
The film lives up to the relentless hype largely due to the casting of the engaging Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, the 16-year old who keeps food on her poor family’s table with her bow and arrow skills. Set in the future when North America has been at war with itself and now lives under a dictatorship called Panem, which rules 12 districts, each year the Reaping lottery selects a young female and a young male from each district to participate in the Hunger Games. It’s a televised survival match for which there can only be one winner.
Katniss first gains public notoriety when she volunteers to take her younger sister’s place as the female tribute from District 12, an impoverished mining area. She’s paired with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and sent to the Capitol to prepare for the game. Their mentor is a former winner, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), now a disillusioned drunk who imparts pearls of occasional wisdom as the two are polished and preened to be presented to the eager public.
This expository phase of the film takes up about half of the two-and-a-half hour running time, leaving director Gary Ross the remainder to actually stage the game, set in a wilderness arena controlled by Seneca (Wes Bentley), the game master who can change the odds with a flick of a switch as viewers around the country watch on huge television screens — a commentary from Collins, who also co-wrote the script with Ross, designed to call out a society addicted to reality TV. It is here that the most controversial aspect of Collins’ work comes into play, literally, as the tributes must kill each other or be killed.
As if to ease the burden, some die by natural causes such as exposure, infection and hunger, evening the odds, but at least half are murdered by each other as Katniss uses a variety of skills to stay alive. Her strongest asset may not be tree climbing or wielding a bow but the psychological game she and Peeta concoct to win audience sympathy as they pretend to be star-crossed lovers caught up in a duel of death. For Peeta, it’s not really a stretch as he has already confessed to television host and game emcee Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci in a blue bouffant and a startling set of brilliant teeth caps) that he’s had a crush on Katniss since they were children.
This ploy sets in motion a game changer that concerns President Snow (Donald Sutherland at his sinister best), who frets constantly that he is losing control of an already restless population. His fears prove true when one of the young contestants under the protection of Katniss is killed, causing an uprising in her home district. Indeed, the foreshadowing of what is to come in the next film is clear as the political implications of the outcome of the Hunger Game are brought to bear.
Ross is a capable director who plays it safe with this movie. It’s bound to please the book’s fans, while also disappointing them with the choice to cut some of the peripheral but popular characters for time’s sake. Ross uses various camera techniques, from stationary to hand held, to achieve different looks of the glimmering Capitol and the verdant woods (shot in North Carolina). His crowd scenes, which focus on the gaunt, hollow-eyed faces of the masses, seem derivative of scenes of the Great Depression that Ross employed in “Seabiscuit,” homages to other films such as “The Wizard of Oz,” touched on in the scenes involving Katniss and Peeta getting groomed for the competition, and “Winter’s Bone,” the indie film about life’s many cruelties set in the rural Ozark mountains for which Lawrence was nominated for an Oscar as the young provider to her rag tag, parentless siblings, was a strong role that parallels that of Katniss in many ways.
Strong supporting characters such as Cinna, the sympathetic stylist who prepares Katniss for the game, played by Lenny Kravitz, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the boyfriend Katniss leaves back home who is sure to play a role in future films, bring added depth to the story, as does Elizabeth Banks as the outré Effie Banks, the District 12 publicist.The excitement for this film has been matched by only a few, such as the “Twilight” trilogy, another tween phenom, and the “Harry Potter” films. With an opening weekend of $155 million, the film broke some records and landed in third place for all-time best opening weekend, right behind “The Dark Knight and “Deathly Hallows,” the last Potter film — a strong start that is sure to leave audiences hungry for more.