Books and film are such unique and separate art forms that transforming the latter into the former can be an imposing task. They both have their own sets of tools and expectations for implementing characters, theme and obviously plot into their narrative. Filmmakers need to find the elements that make the source material work and find a way to express them cinematically while staying true to the goals of the book. These films fail more often than not.
That is why it is so refreshing “The Hunger Games,” based on the wildly popular book series by Suzanne Collins, is a thrillingly successful adaptation. This film, directed with a flair for old-fashioned storytelling momentum by Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”), nails almost every element that made Collins’ book a success; the despairing vision of the future, the wicked satire of reality entertainment and the memorable characters on both sides of one sadistic game.
A brief prologue explains that North America has transformed into the singular, fascist nation of Panem, which consists of a capitol city and 12 surrounding districts (the 13th was destroyed). Panem crushed a rebellion by the Districts many years earlier. As a result, every year the Capitol selects two teenagers, a boy and a girl, from each district to compete in the Hunger Games, in which the “tributes” will fight to the death in a computer-generated battlefield, to be broadcast on television, until one winner remains.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, “X-Men: First Class”) is a resourceful, strong-willed 16-year-old girl who lives in the mountainous, impoverished District 12, with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth,”The Last Song”) and her younger sister Prim (newcomer Willow Shields). On the day the Capitol selects the participants for the Games, Prim’s name gets called, and a horrified Katniss volunteers to take her place, alongside Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”), the male participant from District 12. The pair are then whisked off to the Capitol with their drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, “Rampart”) and their garishly-dressed liaison Effie (Elizabeth Banks, “Man On a Ledge”), to fight for their lives for the entertainment of the masses.
One of the reasons for the success of this film is how well Ross, who co-wrote the script with Collins and Billy Ray, captures the ambition and the tone of the novel. The hand-held camerawork and the over-the-top production design captures the contrast between the crushing poverty in the Districts and the excess of the Capitol, represented by Seneca (Wes Bentley, “Underworld: Awakening”), the Gamemaker who creates the madhouse that is the Hunger Games battlefield, and the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland, “Horrible Bosses”), who uses the Games to force the Districts to bend to his will.
The story’s satirical elements are intact as well. The contestants are told to manufacture their personalities and relationships to win sponsorships and the adoration of the crowd and the competition’s announcer and interviewer Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, “Captain America: The First Avenger”). The connection to reality TV is unmistakable, with shows like “American Idol” doing the exact same thing. Katniss gets a makeover from the designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, “Precious”) and is told to scale back her aloof nature.
The film’s balance between the horrors of the Games themselves and the dark comedy of the Capitol’s hedonism is impressive and they complement each other perfectly. The film is also unflinching in its depiction of the violence of the Games. There is not a lot of blood in this film, but old-fashioned filmmaking techniques such as quick editing and sound design makes the horrifying concept of teenagers murdering each other visceral without ever becoming to exploitative. The pacing is another strength of the film. At 142 minutes, “The Hunger Games” never drags, since the script and Ross’ surehanded direction trust the story and the characters to carry the narrative momentum.
The superb performances help out in that department. The entire ensemble give excellent performances, with the standout being the searing performance by Lawrence as Katniss. Not since Sigourney Weaver in 1986’s “Aliens” has a female character so vividly combined maternal fire and steel-willed intensity. Katniss is not that different from Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of a teen living in the Ozarks in 2010s “Winter’s Bone.” She nails every facet of this character, whether she is literally shaking with fear when she enters the battlefield or cannily using her survival and hunting techniques to protect a younger contestant named Rue (Amandla Stenberg, “Colombiana”). Lawrence was the perfect choice to bring this character to life. Hutcherson is also effective as Peeta, whose ability to work the crowds makes up for his lack of physical strength. Tucci, Harrelson and Banks have a lot of fun with their roles, and Sutherland is a menacing villain.
But the film’s relentless pace is occasionally a drawback. The film is almost too faithful to the novel; it tries to cram in all of its plot, and the seams show, especially when it comes to developing relationships. The sisterly bond Rue and Katniss develop during the Games does register, but Katniss’ interactions with her friend Gale and the manufactured relationship with Peeta are not fleshed out enough to add the extra emotional dimension the film needed to be truly masterful. The shaky camerawork is effective in conveying a gritty atmosphere, but it does make some of the action scenes that dominate the film’s second half hard to decipher, and some of the special effects, like Katniss’s fire-shooting dresses and the genetically engineered monsters in the Games are surprisingly lackluster.
Even though the film does not go as far as it could in bringing Collins’ twisted dystopian vision to life, “The Hunger Games” is a rousing and satisfying sci-fi allegory. It may not be perfect, but the film capture’s the novel’s most important element: its bruised heart.