The Hunger Games, the first in the trio of Suzanne Collins' dark and engrossing young adult novels about a dystopian society and those who challenge it, is a wonderfully addictive read.
Director and cowriter Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), along with screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, State of Play), prove the perfect pair to shepherd her work to theaters.
Unlike directors whose egos errantly convince them they are bigger than the phenomenon -- book and film -- Ross has the sense to mostly stay out of the way; his presence is as much about what he doesn't do as what he does.
Set sometime in the future, The Hunger Games adroitly weaves social and political commentary, and a romantic triangle through an engaging science-fiction tale. The heroine is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a flinty 16-year-old girl, skillful with a bow and arrow, whose mental and physical strength will be challenged in unimaginable, horrific ways.
As Katniss, Lawrence is the heart of the film, and delivers a tender-tough performance that rivals her Oscar-nominated breakthrough in the 2010 indie-thriller Winter's Bone.
An unlikely pair, the sci-fi allegory and backwoods nightmare drama share a common theme: hard-bitten young woman struggling in rural poverty to overcome her circumstances -- a wisp of a mother and absent/dead father -- and raise her siblings, whose life is upended by a quest of personal and familial salvation.
In Winter's Bone she braves a hillbilly mafia to find her derelict and bail-skipping father; in TheHunger Games she volunteers in place of her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) as a contestant in the blood bath known as the Hunger Games.
The games exist as mandatory penance to a decades-old rebellion by the 12 districts of Panem (what is now North America) against the nation's seat of authority, the Capitol. Each year a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 from every district are chosen at random to represent their state. To the sole survivor of the to-the-death contest goes unimaginable riches and spoils. To the colorful and pitiless residents of the Capitol -- looking like extras from 1997's The Fifth Element -- comes violent sport for entertainment and gambling.
Along with Katniss, a kindly school classmate named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is selected to represent their home, District 12, the poorest of Panem's dozen sections. The pair have a brief history; Peeta once gave a starving Katniss loaves of bread to survive, and has secretly harbored a crush on her since. But there is another man in Katniss' life, albeit only a friend who also pines for her in secret, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).
As with most dystopian futures, commentary about the haves and have-nots is abundant.
The Hunger Games is a fictional reflection of the 99 percent and 1 percent masquerading as a young adult book. Katniss and her family struggle in abject poverty, while the wealthy Capitol residents, living in a gleaming, sprawling metropolis, sit smugly atop the backs of their forced labor. Among them is prim and proper Effie Trinket (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks in pink and blue wigs, and clown-white make-up); kindly soul Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who helps Katniss and Peeta dress to impress the wealthy Capitol denizens; Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) who's in charge of the games; the game's host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), and Panem's President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who figures to play a more prominent role in the films to come.
Besides Katniss, the most memorable character is Haymitch Abernathy (a perfectly cast Woody Harrleson, on a roll with standout performances in The Messenger and Rampart), one of only two Hunger Game winners from District 12. Haymitch is a legend, or was -- he's a middle-aged drunk now -- who finds inspiration in Katniss and works behind the scenes to, as the film says, turn the odds in her favor.
Given the recent failure of so many big-budget films, the odds weren't in The Hunger Games favor, either.
Thankfully, Hollywood got this one right.
THE HUNGER GAMES
Directed by Gary Ross. Screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray, based on Collins' novel. A Lionsgate release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images -- all involving teens. Running time: 142 minutes.
Critic's rating: ****
Katniss Everdeen .............Jennifer Lawrence
Peeta Mellark ................ Josh Hutcherson
Gale Hawthorne .............. Liam Hemsworth
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.