This movie is a mini-miracle. In the wrong hands, with a subpar screenplay, with a talentless director, and with an ill-chosen cast, The Hunger Games movie could have been a disaster. This movie could have been—gulp—the Twilight saga. Thankfully, like with the Harry Potter series, all of the elements came together here, from the writers, to the director, to the fabulous cast, to make a rousing good time at the movies. Does the movie improve on the book, and really stand out as a superb motion picture? Not quite. The book is still much more brutal and exciting. Let’s be honest—an R-rated version of the book would have been the most successful adaptation. But the film turned out really well, and at nearly two and a half hours, there’s never a dull moment.
The book’s author Suzanne Collins co-wrote the film’s screenplay and served as executive producer, and her involvement can be witnessed from the opening scenes. The world this film creates feels very authentic to the book, everything from the tremendous production design to the nearly invisible special effects to the unique costume designs. The filmmakers do a great job from beginning to end of making the book come alive. Director Gary Ross might not have seemed the obvious choice to handle this material—he directed Seabiscuit and wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay Dave—but he made a strange world in many ways unlike our own in his 1998 directorial debut, the magical Pleasantville. His credits may be limited, but his talent and vision is always present in every new venture he takes, and his artistry is an invaluable asset to The Hunger Games.
Not every casting choice is perfect, but the acclaimed casting director Debra Zane (Traffic, American Beauty) has done a superb job bringing the characters of the book to life. Back in early 2011 there were rumors of True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld being the frontrunner for the main role, but it’s been said later that Jennifer Lawrence was always Ross’s first and only choice for the role. She is perfect as Katniss Everdeen, as she makes the character flawed and intelligent and vulnerable and athletically skilled and, most of all, human. She’s also one of the most stunningly beautiful actresses of her generation. Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson deliver mixed results as the main two boys. Hemsworth, mostly known as Miley Cyrus’s boyfriend, is dashingly handsome as Gale, but we barely get to spend any time with him in this installment—here’s hoping he’s in more of films two and three. Hutcherson grows into the role after a while, but he’s so baby-faced that it’s hard to imagine any real chemistry between him and the more mature and striking Lawrence as the series continues.
The really inspired casting comes with the supporting characters. The popularity of this project obviously allowed for some A-list talent in secondary roles, and seen throughout the movie are no less than Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, and Wes Bentley. Harrelson is a perfect fit for the drunkard Haymitch, and Banks is nearly unrecognizable as the spirited Effie. Tucci obviously has a blast with his role as the talk show host, and Sutherland is appropriately creepy as Snow. But the most pleasing face to see in this big event film has to be Wes Bentley, who delivered a magnificent break-out performance in American Beauty thirteen years ago, then spent a decade wallowing in drugs and despair. He finally makes a well-deserved comeback as the despicable Seneca Crane.
The games themselves are handled well, if a bit too expectedly tame. In the book Collins really goes for the gut, literally, when killing off the teenage characters, but don’t expect to see much violence in the movie. Of course we don’t need to see each kid get maimed to make the movie better, but the lack of on-screen violence makes the movie feel a bit too family-friendly to really startle and surprise the audience. The most affecting on-screen death, which happens toward the end, is handled violently and effectively, but most of the characters fight and die off-screen, with the camera shaking real fast, with the character hitting the ground and staring motionlessly off into the distance. At the heart of this story is a brutal game where kids kill each other; the intensity could definitely have been upped a notch or two.
But every fan of the books, even non-fans, are, of course, going to nitpick. The Hunger Games is a marvelous movie, the best studio release so far this year, the first big event movie of 2012. Director Ross does a great job of keeping the story grounded and focused on Katniss, making her journey one we as an audience can share up close and personal with her. The screenplay allows for quiet scenes that help build the characters and the character relationships. The film ends on an ominous note, the kind of tantalizing one that will keep us excited for the next two installments. And most of all, more than anything else, The Hunger Games makes a giant star out of Jennifer Lawrence. The movie is really good; Lawrence is sensational.