Wow. The film version of “The Hunger Games,” the best-selling first novel in the young adult Mockingjay series by Suzanne Collins, gets it. It captures the spirit and feel of the story in every respect.
Director Gary Ross, who also directed and wrote “Pleasantville” (1998) and the screenplay for “Seabiscuit” (2003), co-wrote the screenplay for “The Hunger Games” with the book’s author. Ms. Collins also writes for children’s television (including the Emmy-nominated “Clarissa Explains It All”) and has shown that she knows what goes on in a teenager’s mind. The two have pared the characters and events of “The Hunger Games” to a powerful, articulate and stunning film.
The story takes place in a post-disaster United States, now called “Panem,” with an affluent capital city and 12 poor Districts that provide the capital with necessities and luxury goods. Every year the Districts, punished for rebelling 75 years earlier, must send a boy and a girl for the Hunger Games, a vicious fight to the deaths for all but one winner. The “games” are televised to all parts of the fragmented nation. For the decadent inhabitants of the capital, it is all great fun; for the people of the Districts who watch their children die, it is agony.
Katniss Everdeen (played breathtakingly by Jennifer Lawrence of “Winter’s Bone”) is 16 years old, tough and competent because she has had to be. Following her father’s death in a mine explosion, her mother succumbed to depression, and Katniss was left to provide for the family with her hunting. Little sister Prim, whom she loves very much, is just 12 years old, timid and shy. Katniss’s best friend is Gale, a boy her age whose hunting also sustains his family.
When Prim is selected in the drawing for the Hunger Games, Katniss steps forward to volunteer in her place. Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, of “Cirque du Freak,” effective as the artistically masculine bakers’ boy who is untrained in fighting but good with people) are allowed painful, brief goodbyes with their families and friends before they are whisked off to the capital to join the “tributes” from the other Districts. Their newly assigned personal stylists will dress and beautify them so they can be marketed to the fans, try to attract sponsors and train and be assessed for the games.
Two weeks after the tributes’ arrival in the capital, all 24 will make their way to the arena – a space where the weather, landscape and fauna are controlled by the Hunger Games management and staff. The staff works very hard to make the Games a sensational show for the audience. With the line, “Happy Hunger Games – and may the odds ever be in your favor,” the Games begin, vicious and bloody and terrifying for its contestants, who have no choice but to kill or be killed by their peers.
The film, at once commercial and terrifying, recalls the most effective aspects of “Lord of the Flies” and “The Running Man.” The talk show host and games analyst Caesar Flickerman is played creepily by Stanley Tucci. His artifice and pretended interest in the tributes, together with the television-like camera work used after the teenagers are in the arena, emphasize the “reality show” aspect of the games as played to the audiences in both the film and the movie theatre.
All of the acting is on target; the casting just right. Wes Bentley, who plays Seneca Crane with the most wonderful beard imaginable; Liam Hemsworth (younger brother of Thor) as impatient, angry Gale Hawthorne; Donald Sutherland as President Snow; Lenny Kravitz as Cinna; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s “mentor”; Amandla Stenberg as Rue – everyone shines. When there is chemistry between characters, it is believable. When there is none, the audience understands why. The evolution of the ambivalence between Katniss and Peeta is portrayed with almost contradictory clarity – the feelings of the characters for each other are as uncertain to them as they are to the audience.
One of the most impressive things about “The Hunger Games” is its score. Original music by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard and a host of others is subtle or conspicuous as is called for. Nature sounds are used in unusual and effective ways. The quiet and unassuming mockingjay song is a recurring motif. Finally, the use of silence, sometimes a more vital choice than music, is brilliant. It creates tension, anticipation or anxiety in the audience and makes more powerful the sounds that occur in the space or those that are heard immediately after the silence ends.
The scenery and costuming are great, as are the film’s special effects and stunt work.
In the words of Isabella Green and Abby Steen, two seventh-graders from Chute waiting in the long, long line for the 7:45 showing:
“We’ve been waiting for ages.”
“Let the games begin!”