Film Review: The Hunger Games

In a grim future, kids fight to the death for televised games. Efficient adaptation of the Suzanne Collins bestseller won't disappoint fans.

The juggernaut that is The Hunger Games reaches the big screen in a version that will draw seasoned fans and curious newcomers alike. And Lionsgate can breathe a sigh of relief over what is being positioned as a Twilight-replacing franchise. Those who hoped for extraordinary or just compelling moviemaking can grumble quietly in a corner.

For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games is the first entry in a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins set in a dystopian future in which the leaders of Panem rule over 12 impoverished rebel districts. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his elite keep rebels in check by demanding that child representatives from those districts hunt each other to the death in annual Olympics-style "Hunger Games."

To protect her younger sister (one of the unlucky chosen ones), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers for the 74th Hunger Games. Along with her district’s male selection, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss is whisked to the Capitol, where she receives a makeover from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and minimal training in survival skills from mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former games winner who hides his self-loathing behind drink and unkempt hair.

Both digressive and hurried, the film covers a lot of ground in its two-and-a-half-hour running time, while setting up a framework for sequels. It takes an hour for the games themselves to begin, at which point the film devolves into standard action fare: chases, traps, betrayals, along with stabbings, stranglings, explosions and, when the pace starts dragging, monster dogs. The fact that it's kids committing the mayhem gives The Hunger Games its kick, and also raises troubling moral issues. The film's PG-13 rating keeps violence and gore to a minimum, but these are still children murdering each other for a mob of cheering viewers.

The Hunger Games does set up a contrast between "good" contestants and "bad" ones. Katniss kills in self-defense; Cato (Alexander Ludwig), from blood lust. But moviegoers, just like the Capitol viewers watching on television, are still encouraged to root for Cato's violent death.

Director Gary Ross doesn't dwell on the implications of the premise, taking a quick, businesslike approach to the story instead. The film includes characters (like a boyfriend back home played by Liam Hemsworth) and details (like the use of sponsors) readers expect, although they will make more sense in sequels. Action scenes are effective, even if some other touches—like the wildflowers placed on a tiny corpse—feel forced.

Jennifer Lawrence handles her acting chores with aplomb, earning respect with her dignified portrayal of Katniss. Josh Hutcherson's Peeta can seem spineless, but at least he plays his role with a straight face, unlike the relentlessly mugging Elizabeth Banks (as gaudy games promoter Effie Trinket). The best performance comes from the gracefully malevolent Donald Sutherland.

The screenwriters (director Ross, novelist Collins and Billy Ray) dress up the story with allusions and references both classical and pop. Characters are named Seneca, Cato and Caesar, and it's easy to pick out resemblances to "Survivor," The Running Man, even Spartacus. Is The Hunger Games saying something about the insatiable maw of celebrity? About the dog-eat-dog essence of capitalism? Or is it simply playing out the tropes of countless stories about killers, using children instead of adults as the leads?

There will be plenty of time to find out in the three planned sequels, which hopefully will move beyond simultaneously criticizing and wallowing in violence.