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Review Essay Of The Hunger Games

I thought this movie would be terrible. From the previews, it looked like a spiritual successor to “Twilight.” Given the fangirl hysteria over “Team Gale” and “Team Peeta” (the movie’s two male leads), I predicted a repeat of the Edward/Jacob phenomenon. Though I’m a huge fan of the books (and consider them to be some of the finest young adult literature of recent years), the film looked mopey and bland.

I have never – ever – been so wrong about a movie.

“The Hunger Games” is a superlative, visceral experience that deserves every bit of its hype. It is a stellar accomplishment that works on every level, but none more profoundly than as a book adaptation. In the months leading up to its release, I did not believe it was possible for a blockbuster, PG-13 Hollywood film to capture the searing intensity of the source material.

“The Hunger Games” is a post-apocalyptic story set in a shattered United States. Twelve Districts, forced to operate under the thumb of an oppressive central government, are compelled to annually send one male and one female teenager as “tribute” to the Capitol. There, they will compete in a televised blood sport – the eponymous “Hunger Games.” When her little sister is selected by lottery for the Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) steps in to take her place. Along with baker’s boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss departs for the Capitol, where she discovers a world of exoticism and violence. Eventually, she and Peeta are thrust into the arena, where they must fight for their lives against dozens of other tributes.

A movie like “The Hunger Games” stands or falls on the success of its leads. And Jennifer Lawrence turns in a career-defining performance as Katniss. In her debut film, the Ozark neo-noir “Winter’s Bone,” she played a spirited backwoods girl defined by her tenacity. And in last summer’s “X-Men: First Class” she proved she could handle blockbuster-caliber roles. In “The Hunger Games,” she bridges the two. It is impossible to envision a performance that better captures the essence of Katniss Everdeen. Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, is nearly as effective – and the charisma of the two leads is the backbone on which the film rests.

Supporting performances are also strong. Woody Harrelson stars as Haymitch, Katniss’ mentor and a former Hunger Games champion. Still channeling the devil-may-care attitude he displayed in “Zombieland,” he provides a strong foil to the Capitol’s pomp and circumstance. Liam Hemsworth’s turn as Gale (a friend of Katniss’ in her home district) is less than appealing, but his character quickly recedes into the background. (And, to be fair, I also found him obnoxious in the source material).

Technically, “The Hunger Games” is impeccable. Production design is superb: the poverty of Katniss’ home District, the grotesque opulence of the Capitol, and the primal wilderness of the Games are beautifully depicted. Though there are a few uses of “shaky cam” techniques (particularly during the most brutal fight scenes), these feel entirely appropriate in context.

It’s also worth noting that “The Hunger Games” is perfectly paced. Despite the fact that the film clocks in at almost 2 ½ hours, not once does it seem to lag. Director Gary Ross brilliantly generates an atmosphere of lingering dread that persists throughout…one of the books’ greatest strengths, and potentially one of the most difficult to capture onscreen. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Suzanne Collins, original author of the “Hunger Games” novels, is responsible for the screenplay.

I’ve discussed the worldview of the “Hunger Games” series at length in previous literature commentaries, and the film doesn’t stray from the books’ nihilism. No mention is made of God or faith, and a generally dark tone prevails throughout. This, however, is appropriate in context. These aren’t stories about the infinite perfectibility of the human spirit: they’re grim, savage meditations on man’s capacity for unimaginable evil.

I’m honestly shocked this film managed to obtain a PG-13 rating. Though sometimes obscured by fast camera cuts, the violence remains brutal and relentless. Blood splatters, bones crunch, and children die at the hands of other children. Viewers are naturally appalled – as well they should be.

Perhaps the image that lingers most profoundly is a “replay” from a prior Hunger Games. In the clip, one teenager looms over another, hammering into the loser’s skull. As the television camera ogles the blood-slicked brick in the killer’s fist, an announcer solemnly declares that “this is the moment when a tribute becomes a victor.” That single visual – glimpsed for perhaps ten seconds – epitomizes the message of “The Hunger Games.” Man is cruel, this film fiercely proclaims, and will succumb to atavistic bloodlust if offered a chance. “The Hunger Games,” like its spiritual predecessor “Lord of the Flies,” shatters utopian fantasies. Instead – through all the blood, death and horror of the Games – man’s true colors emerge. And they are dark indeed.

The bitter irony of “The Hunger Games” is that millions of people will flock to see this movie in the theater, and will watch horrifying acts of violence committed by children against other children – just as the citizens of the Capitol are glued to their own television sets, watching the Hunger Games unfold. Humans are fascinated by death and hatred, the film warns, and that fascination may birth unbearable carnage. Does that mean you shouldn’t watch “The Hunger Games”? Absolutely not – this irony merely serves to highlight the raw effectiveness of the movie’s message. And it’s a message that our modern, desensitized culture must hear.

That’s not to say, though, that the film is appropriate for all audiences – at the very least, this is a hard PG-13 bordering on an R rating. There are a few mild profanities, but the real issue is the savage brutality on display. Mature viewers, however, will find much to ponder here – even in the midst of despair and chaos.

Is it worth seeing, then?

“The Hunger Games” is a masterpiece that exceeded my highest expectations. Leaving the theater, I tried to think of what I thought should have been done differently. And I came up with…nothing.

VERDICT: 10/10
Flawless. Possibly the best book-to-film transition I’ve ever seen.

Normalized Score: 9.2

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In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her little sister's place in a killing ritual televised to the masses. Lionsgate hide caption

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Suzanne Collins' novel The Hunger Games and its two sequels are smashingly well written and morally problematic. They're set in the future, in which a country — presumably the former United States — is divided into 12 fenced-off districts many miles apart.

Each year, to remind people of its limitless power, a totalitarian government holds a lottery, selecting two children per district to participate in a killing ritual — the Hunger Games of the title — that will be televised to the masses, complete with opening ceremonies and beauty-pageant-style interviews.

Out of 24 participants, only one child will live. And we hope it will be Katniss Everdeen, from the impoverished mining District 12 — a teen who, when her little sister is picked in the lottery, volunteers to take her place.

Why is it problematic? Kids killing kids is the most wrenching thing we can imagine, and rooting for the deaths of Katniss' opponents can't help but implicate us. But the novel is written by a humanist: When a child dies, we breathe a sigh of relief that Katniss has one less adversary, but we never go, "Yes!" — we feel only revulsion for this evil ritual.

If the film's director, Gary Ross, has any qualms about kids killing kids, he keeps them to himself. The murders on screen are fast and largely pain-free — you can hardly see who's killing who. So despite the high body count, the rating is PG-13.

Think about it: You make killing vivid and upsetting and get an R. You take the sting out of it, and kids are allowed into the theater. The ratings board has it backward.

The packed preview audience clearly loved The Hunger Games, but I saw one missed opportunity after another. Director Ross has a penchant for showbiz satire, pleasant in Pleasantville but ruinous in Seabiscuit — a great book about the torturous underbelly of horse racing turned into a lame, movie-ish period piece.

He approaches The Hunger Games like a hack. The film is all shaky close-ups, so you rarely have a chance to take in the space, and the editing is so fast you can't focus. As Katniss' dissolute mentor Haymitch, a former Hunger Games champ, Woody Harrelson has no chance to establish a comic rhythm — or disgust at what he's doing. The book's most fascinating and mercurial character, the costume designer Cinna, is now a blandly nice guy played by the agreeable but dull non-actor Lenny Kravitz.

A highlight of the book is how Cinna uses his showbiz savvy to make the reluctant Katniss a star, the center of the pre-Hunger Games pageant. But in the movie, her entrance in a costume that's literally in flames is so poorly framed that you can't revel in her triumph. Ross throws away what could be a startling image of child warriors rising out of tubes to face one another in a semicircle, knowing they might die in seconds. Where is the horror?

The film gets some things right, like the shots of Katniss running through the woods, the canopy of trees above her streaking by. And it has an astoundingly good Katniss in Jennifer Lawrence. She's not a chiseled Hollywood ingénue or a trained action star — she looks real. And without words, she makes it clear that Katniss' task is not merely to stay alive but somehow to hold onto her humanity.

A few other actors register in spite of the speed-freak editing. Josh Hutcherson has a strong, sorrowful countenance as Katniss' fellow District 12 contestant, Peeta. Stanley Tucci in a blue bouffant as a talk-show host, Wes Bentley in a manicured black-fungus beard as the games' high-tech coordinator, and Donald Sutherland in a white mane as the demonic lion of a president are all you could hope for.

There's a terrific score by James Newton Howard that captures moods — wistful, mysterious — that the director fails to evoke. The Hunger Games leaves you content — but not, as with the novel, devastated by the senseless carnage. It is, I'm sorry to say, the work of moral cowards.

The Hunger Games

  • Director: Gary Ross
  • Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
  • Running Time: 142 minutes

Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens

With: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland