Saturday, March 24, 2012


Breathe easy, everyone. "The Hunger Games" is not the next "Twilight," not even close. Don't even utter that title -- think more along the lines of the "Harry Potter" series. Suzanne Collins' post-apocalyptic tale that has thrilled millions of readers is now affirmed worthy of being the next big screen literary phenomenon. It's an accomplished, strong and unflinching adaptation that lives up entirely to the source material and even to the hype surrounding it. And with that, the next big franchise begins.

Director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville," "Seabiscuit") does a superb job of establishing Collins' vision of her futuristic Panem, what was once North America. The bleak opening alone effortlessly displays the tension between the gaudy, colorful luxuries of the Capitol and the twelve districts that lie below in desperation and desolation. It was seventy-four years ago when the districts rebelled, and as a punishing reminder the morally-corrupted Capitol hosts the annual Hunger Games. Each district must offer up one boy and one girl as tributes to compete in a fight to the death between 24 children and teens with only one emerging victor. Not only that, the competition is a widely celebrated national media event within the Capitol while every district is forced to watch loved ones fight for their lives.

The story's heart lies with 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who, during the Reaping Day ceremony where tribute names are selected out of a daunting fish bowl, hears the name of her young sister, Prim Everdeen. In a bout of adrenaline and sacrifice, Katniss leaps forward and volunteers herself as tribute to save her sister. Facing the games and her possible death, Katniss is not the ferocious, fearless heroine. The brilliantly cast Jennifer Lawrence (of "Winter's Bone") digs deeper. She shows Katniss as fighting out of necessity to stay alive. She is intelligent, tactful and skilled when it comes to hunting. She knows her capabilities and knows what must be done if she's faced with having to kill another person. With a signature thick braid trailing down her back and completely unaware of her own natural beauty, the Academy Award-nominated Lawrence is the best incarnation of Katniss as there ever would be.

Picked alongside Katniss is the baker's son who saved her life, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson of "The Kids Are All Right"). They're both from the downtrodden District 12 where Katniss otherwise spends her days hunting for scraps of food to keep her sister and widowed mother alive. Along with them, Katniss leaves behind her close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth of "The Last Song" with girlfriend Miley Cyrus) who she illegally hunts with on the outskirts of the district. Hemsworth has an appealing presence while Hutcherson is great as the boy with the bruised heart, and both of their characters may be secretly pining for Katniss.

Inside the Capitol, Katniss and Peeta are treated to a world of decadence that both allures and takes them aback. This is while we're treated to a wonderfully charismatic supporting cast. Among them is Elizabeth Banks as the prim and proper Effie Trinket whose phrase, "May the odds be ever in your favor" holds a malicious aftertaste. Then there's Haymitch, played up with humor and heart by Woody Harrelson, the District 12 mentor who's all too used to having tributes with no potential. Every tribute gets a makeover, and Lenny Kravitz serves as Cinna, Katniss' affectionate stylist guru who fashions her a dress that is literally on fire.

The games have an artificial glamour to them thanks to Caesar Flickerman, played with excellent sinister charm by a wig-wearing Stanley Tucci, who serves as the TV host. Katniss and Peeta are instructed by Haymitch how to pander to the audience and suck up to sponsors so they drop them crucial supplies as gifts while in the arena. The District 12 duo becomes labeled as the star-crossed lovers, but is Katniss truly falling for Peeta, or is she just trying to save both their lives? Your call.

The movie is brutal when it needs to be concerning the bloody teen-on-teen violence in the arena. Most of it is off-screen slaying, but the implication is nonetheless disturbing. When the countdown ends and the games officially begin, the initial scene is one of wild intensity that sets the tone. Once inside, we follow a mostly silent Katniss on the watch for predators; Lawrence here is particularly expressive moving with quick confidence. A lot of shaky-cam captures the action to a great and jarring effect; the cinematography overall from Tom Stern (best known for working on Clint Eastwood films) turns the environments imagined by Collins into truly cinematic creations along with Thomas Newton Howard providing a moving score.

For once this could be a situation where the movie adaptation nearly outshines the source material thanks to impeccable casting and solid acting. Perhaps thanks to Collins' own involvement in the screenplay alongside Billy Ray and Gary Ross, there is a vast amount of exposition and detail packed in. It's remarkable considering how lean and trim the script is without a moment of downtime within the expansive 2-and-a-half-hour running time. Best of all, any potential for cheesy moments or trite dialogue is checked at the door. What unfolds feels entirely visceral and real. Ross knows when to keep things tastefully understated and when to kick up the "wow" factor to sensationalize.

When not in the arena we're shown the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who mandates the Hunger Games to spite that one rebellion against him. With him is the Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and his assistants who manipulate the conditions of the arena to ensure maximum cruelty. With that comes subtle allegory -- the moral ambiguity when it comes to most guilty pleasure reality shows today. Most important, though, is the very human story here, one that resonates not just as teen fiction but thought-provoking entertainment for adults. And it doesn't hurt that it's so skillfully done. This is the best adaptation of "The Hunger Games" fans could have ever imagined or hoped for, and the sequels can't come soon enough.

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