The Hunger Games
Unlike most everyone I know, I have not yet read the wildly popular Suzanne Collins novel The Hunger Games. My initial impression based upon a quick synopsis of the story was that it was "The Running Man" with a teenage girl playing Arnold Schwarzenegger. As it happens there's a little bit of truth to that but as most everyone reading this review already knows it's far from the whole story.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, "The Hunger Games" is set in Panem, a nation that sprang up after an unsuccessful uprising presumably in North America 74 years before. Panem's one real city, the Capitol is the seat of all wealth and power while twelve outlying districts languish in poverty. As punishment for the uprising the Capitol has an annual "reaping" from all 12 districts. These "reapings" entail choosing one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to represent their districts in the annual Hunger Games. They are then sent out into the "arena" in which they are forced to fight to the death in front of a rabid television audience. Only one out of the twenty four will survive.Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone") is a sixteen year old in District 12. She provides for her mother and twelve year old sister Primrose (Willow Shields) by hunting illegally in the woods with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Since her father was killed in a coal mining accident, her bow and arrow have been a lifesaver for her family. When Primrose is chosen as the girl from District 12 Katniss knows it is a death sentence for her little sister. Desperately she volunteers to go in Prim's place as "tribute." Meanwhile, sixteen year old Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, "The Kids Are All Right") is chosen as the boy.
Katniss and Peeta do not go immediately to the arena. First they must train and receive mentorship from a previous winner (Woody Harrelson), all while appearing on television with colorful host and Hunger Games commentator Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, who's clearly having a lot of fun).Directed by Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit"), "The Hunger Games" is written by Ross, Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass"), and Collins herself. What they have created- at least from the standpoint of someone who's not read the books- is the perfect popcorn movie. Strangely for its dystopian premise it is actually extremely accessible which is no doubt the key to its mass appeal. Most every step of the way I felt I knew what was to come next and more often than not I was right. This wasn't disappointing however. The choices felt right as though most every decision is what you felt should happen. (I would imagine the book plays out the same way.) It's incredibly involving as well. When you finally do get into the arena, which seemed surprisingly far into the the movie, the sense of tension is remarkably strong. It's a real credit to the quality of the storytelling that the story is engrossing rather than horrifying. Remember, in this world 23 children are being sent to their deaths for the sake of entertainment.
All in all, the film is well cast. Established stars such as Tucci, Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland give fine, often theatrical performances, while some of the younger actors such as Hutcherson and Amandla Stenberg (Rue) do good work. It's Lawrence's star making performance as Katniss that is truly remarkable. Already the recipient of a well deserved Oscar nomination for "Winter's Bone," Lawrence makes us truly believe that Katniss not only can but will win. Even when the situation is dire and she's outnumbered there's a sense that she's not really the one who's in trouble. It never comes off as a cheap "girl power" gimmick though. Katniss Everdeen isn't merely an archetypal tough girl, she's a real character with depth.
As the film ended I still had questions but questions that I feel confident will be answered in its subsequent sequels. "The Hunger Games" is a very entertaining film with far more intelligence than the average popcorn movie. I very much look forward to seeing what happens next. 8/10.