With a built-in audience of mostly 14-17 year-old girls, director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”) puts forth The Hunger Games — a rather faithful version of the first novel in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy, telling the tale of a post-apocalyptic North America divided into 12 districts.
And with the country having gone through a rebellion years before, the government, led by a white-bearded Donald Sutherland, has instituted a punishment of sorts to be inflicted on the treasonous districts. This rather bizarre action includes taking a young male and female from each area and forcing all of them to fight to the death. These “Hunger Games,” have since turned into a media sensation, with celebrations and a highly-rated “reality” show to show off the chosen ones. Smarmy host, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, “The Lovely Bones”), even does Ryan Seacrest/Geraldo Rivera-type commentary and interviews with the selectees.
Coming out of the most remote district (No. 12) is super bow hunter Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar-nominated for “Winter’s Bone”) and baker’s apprentice Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, “Journey 2: Mysterious Island”). The movie informs us that Katniss volunteered for this punishment to protect her little sister, Primrose, who was originally chosen.
The movie also tells us that in the near future, names like Katniss, Peeta and Primrose, will become commonplace. In addition, despite the presence of an all-powerful police state dictatorship which can rip young people from the arms of their families at will, the populace dresses like rejects from any city’s Gay Pride parade, with hairdos similar to the Whos of Whoville. (One cannot help but weep for a fashion future that makes the 1970s look understated and conservative).
Anyways, Katniss and Peeta are soon whisked off to the capital, where they meet their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, “Rampage”), the overbearing chaperon Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, “Man On a Ledge” and looking like Johnny Depp in drag on the set of “Alice In Wonderland”) and clothing designer Cinna (singer Lenny Kravitz). They are also introduced to the producer of the Hunger Games TV show, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, “American Beauty,” “Ghost Rider”), as well as the other “contestants,” each with their own special survival and/or fighting skill.
About an hour into The Hunger Games, the games actually begin. Katniss, even though an expert archer who has spent most of her youth in the woods, nevertheless has difficulty adjusting, as some weird alliances are formed specifically against her (why some of the selectees would align themselves with anyone, though, since only one can survive, is a bit questionable). Other kids, many with zeal, go after one another with swords, axes, scimitars, bows and arrows, as well as other instruments of destruction. The quick-cut, hand-held camera work made ubiquitous by flicks like “Cloverfield” diffuses some of the gore in these sequences but not so much that we don’t know what’s going on. The viewer will have to see for themselves what further happens during these games, but a few unexpected twists make the conclusion a real surprise (unless of course, one has already read the book — which, thankfully I had not).
Top-notch acting, especially from Lawrence, Tucci, Banks and Harrelson, and surprisingly by Hutcherson and Kravitz, lift this adaptation over similar films such as those in the “The Chronicles of Narnia” franchise, but below those in the “Harry Potter” series and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, however. Meanwhile, Tucci’s running commentaries on the games brings to mind Richard Dawson in “The Running Man,” although the latter had much better one-liners.
Still, in these movie doldrum months, The Hunger Games, while not great, is certainly an effective and workmanlike effort. And while the subject matter of children and young teenagers fighting one another to the death may lead some parents to think twice about bringing their own kids to the picture, the movie is sure to top the box office as well as produce sequels (two books remain to be adapted) in the future.