“May the odds be ever in your favor!”
This is the traditional address Effie gives the residents of District 12 before the annual Reaping ceremony, right before one young boy and one young girl are picked out as human sacrifices…oh, sorry, “tributes”…to be thrown into an arena to fight to the death on live television. For the residents of District 12, the odds are decidedly not in their favor. Only one of their own has ever won the Hunger Games and they live in an isolated backwater that is beset by poverty and starvation, literally centuries behind in development to the rich Capital they supply with coal.
This is the beauty and horror of The Hunger Games, often compared to Twilight since each series has a teenage girl as the main protagonist—Bella in Twilight and Katniss in The Hunger Games. While each young woman is caught in a love triangle, beyond that they have little in common. Bella plays the damsel in distress, while Katniss is the fighter. And The Hunger Games is more than a great horror-adventure tale with a love story thrown in. This series deals with totalitarianism, the human impulse to treat blood sport as entertainment, and, on a very real level, power and class. (The last theme resonates with many given the recent protests against Wall Street).
The residents of the Capital are a bizarre, decadent, elite that live in splendor made possible by the labors of the 12 Districts, then further degrade these territories by making them sacrifice their own children for the Capital’s entertainment and betting purposes. Suzanne Collins’s vision has always been not only horrific but also plausible and eager fans everywhere were wondering whether it could be translated to the big screen. (Read Jocelyn Lucas Rosenberg’s review of the book).
Wonder no longer. Every detail about The Hunger Games has been perfectly executed. (Pun intended). Director Gary Ross comes up with a wonderful visual tableau—the bleakness and muted colors of District 12, where Capital resident Effie (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks who seems to be having the time of her life), appears almost alien, to the bright colors and fantastical wardrobes of the technologically advanced Capital where even the dogs have dyed pink hair, to the Arena itself with the stark survival setting of the woods. One warning: the film’s fighting sequences can be as harrowing as the subject matter attests. It’s one thing to read about kids killing kids and the slaughter at the Cornucopia; another thing entirely to see it, and it’s no wonder they had to fight for the PG-13 rating.
Since the movie, unlike the books, isn’t limited by being told only through Katniss’s eyes, we get to witness more anger from Haymitch (a pitch perfect Woody Harrelson) and his growing interest in his mentee’s survival, the machinations of Capital officials like President Snowe (a regal yet menacing Donald Sutherland), and gamekeeper Seneca (Wes Bentley in the best work he’s done in years), and the way Katniss, simply by being herself, unwittingly sparks rioting and rebellion among those in the other districts.
Casting is important, particularly in a film that will become a series with continuing characters. The Hunger Games succeeds brilliantly with a rich lineup of actors, well known and soon-to-be-known. Lenny Kravitz is gorgeous and cool as District 12’s design genius Cinna, while Brooke Bundy as Octavia makes her first brief appearance (soon to grow as a greater role). Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones are a ball as the Games commentators Ceasar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith.
Amanda Stenburg’s Rue is quite simply adorable and Alexander Ludwig manages a final poignant note in the role of the vicious Cato.
Katniss’s best friend and suitor Gale won’t play much of an active role until the sequels, but Liam Hemsworth already “feels” right in the role.
Joss Hutcherson, is normally a brunette but he managed to transform himself perfectly into Peeta, the stocky, blond-haired baker’s boy. More importantly he manages capture Peeta’s souful qualities and his eyes always hint at deep levels of pain and strategy.
The film, however, rises and falls on Katniss and Jennifer Lawrence immerses herself so totally in the role you’re tempted to believe it was originally written for her. She is Katniss, that prickly, passionate, girl from District 12 who’s never more at home than in the woods. She is The Girl on Fire. Accept no substitutes. (Read our review of Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone).
The Hunger Games set box office records this weekend. I could see it at the multiplex, not just in the lines and the packed theaters, but in the way the movie affected its audience that greeted several moments in the film with spontaneous applause. The Hunger Games is the first true “event” movie of the summer and unlike other such films, this one happens to be good. Get ready for the start of the Next Big Franchise, a film that leaves you Hungry for more.