The Hunger Games

Over the last decade, there have been so many new YA movies that have tried (oh, so desperately) to be the next Harry Potter. Twilight‘s probably been the most successful (though that doesn’t mean it hasn’t sucked). But the trail of cinematic wreckage also includes the brilliant but unsuccessful (A Series of Unfortunate Events), the extraordinarily mediocre (Percy Jackson and the Olympians), and the truly disappointing because the source material was pretty awesome (The Dark is Rising).

Enter The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’s first novel in her series about the wacky goings on in the futuristic world of Panem. I am, of course, being sarcastic. Panem is a dystopian nightmare of rich city dwellers who live off the backs of the poor folks out in the districts. To punish the districts for a rebellion almost a century earlier, each must offer up two teenagers (a boy and a girl) as tributes. These 24 youths are forced to fight each other to the death on live TV.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss, our heroine, who selflessly volunteers as tribute when her younger sister is chosen. She (and her fellow District 12er, Peeta) train for a half-week, then they start running around the forest, trying not to die.

My overall impression of the film was that it was good, but not great. One thing that works well is the way the film builds tension, before the Reaping (when they select the tributes), the countdown to the Games, various tense standoffs in the woods. Even though I usually knew how things would end, that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel my pulse quickening. That’s good film making.

The performances were all pretty good. Lawrence holds her own. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta does some nice work. Donald Sutherland as President Snow seemed a little sleepy. Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, the Games Maker, plays his role a little too vaguely for my tastes. He did terrible things, but by the end I think we’re supposed to feel compassion for him, except I didn’t. Woody Harrelson plays Haymitch, a former Games winner who is brought on to tutor Katniss and Peeta. He’s okay, but I can’t help but remember how much more fun he was in 2012. I probably most liked Cinna, Katniss’s stylist, played by Lenny Kravitz! He was understated, but solid.

Then there are all the tributes. Some are cute little girls, some are hulking dangerous boys, and I didn’t care over-much (either positively or negatively) about any of them. Katniss didn’t share more than two words with anyone except little Rue, and that was just for a few minutes of screen time.

For a film titled The Hunger Games, there was way more time spent in preparation and training than in the Games themselves. I had hoped there would be Survivor-style alliances made and broken, daring escapes, clever traps, all that kind of thing. And there were… kinda. But very little of it seemed particularly innovative or even interesting.

I do applaud the choice to not overdo the televised nature of the Games. Yes, they are televised, and yes, we do cut away to Katniss’s family, or the director in his control room, or Katniss’s pseudo-boyfriend back in District 12. But they save the cutaways for dramatically important moments. We’ve had plenty of films play the televised mayhem card, so there was no need for this to be another Running Man.

Since this is a YA novel starring a girl, there has to be a love triangle. At least the way this one plays out is relevant to the Games. For the sake of those who don’t want anything spoiled, I won’t say how, but it’s handled pretty well.

The film has already made (in three days) over 150 million dollars, so I suspect that we’ll see Catching Fire coming to a theatre near you in 2014.

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