Making a book into a movie is a risky business. Book lovers always assert that nothing can compare to the original work, while those who have not read the book will either forgo the movie completely or will leave the theater confused by those crucial missing scenes. All in all, you would think that The Hunger Games directed by Gary Ross and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutchinson, would be another well-intentioned but forgettable movie. You would be wrong.
By now, the plot is probably familiar to most: In a post-apocalyptic America, the remaining population has been divided into 12 districts which are controlled by the Capitol. 17-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives in the impoverished District 12 with her younger sister Prim and her ailing mother. Her worst fears are realized when she is chosen as one of District 12’s Tributes for the Hunger Games, a twisted reality show that pits 24 boys and girls against one other in a fight to the death.
While the narrative takes place in the future, Ross does a wonderful job of subtly indicating that Katniss’ world might be more than mere fantasy. The opening shots of the small gray shacks and narrow dusty footpaths of District 12 could just have as easily been located in present-day Appalachia or in the low-income sections of many American towns. The forest where Katniss and her friend Gale illegally hunt for food has not been made lush and green by digital modifications; the landscape looks as tired and beaten as the polluted forests of our time. The Capitol skyline resembles New York City’s more than that of an otherworldly planet. And while the latest Capitol fashions are bizarre, they are no more outlandish than the haute couture we fawn over in magazines.
But more than the setting, it is the emotions portrayed in the film that link us with Katniss and her world. While their relationship is given very little screen time, Katniss’ love for her sister Prim is palpable; it is only shock that at first causes her to hesitate from volunteering to take her sister’s place as Tribute. Jennifer Lawrence’s facial expressions give away very little, but her eyes mist over with nostalgia as she thinks of the home she has left behind or glint with pain as she says goodbye to her family for what may be the last time. Her portrayal of Katniss as a girl who has often had to bury her feelings in order to help those around her is believable and refreshing, considering the hysterics many actresses are compelled to reproduce. Katniss saves her words and her tears for when they are really merited; her grief over Rue’s death is almost frightening in its intensity and her concern for Peeta indicates that perhaps she feels more for him than she would like to believe. While those who have read the books may miss Katniss’ ferocity, Lawrence’s portrayal treads a fine line between passive femininity and warrior-woman aggressiveness. She is undoubtedly pretty, but is most certainly not above running, sweating and bleeding, especially when her life or the life of a loved one depends upon it. When Peeta reveals his feelings for her during his interview, she is angry, but not angry enough to hurt him as she does in the book. Josh Hutchinson is loveable as Peeta, portraying him with an innocence that masks his physical strength and tactical ability to garner sympathy.
However, the acting was not at all helped by the cinematography. The jolting opening shots of District 12 will most likely give the viewer a headache rather than an idea of Katniss’ impoverished situation. The manner in which the camera shifts in and out of focus when Katniss is under the influence of the tracker-jack’s venom undermines Lawrence’s perfectly competent acting.
The action scenes are rendered incomprehensible by the camera work, which does not allow for the horror of the events at hand to fully resonate with the viewer. The dialogue, especially at the beginning of the movie, is not particularly inspired; Katniss and Gale’s banter was dry and not funny. It’s tempting to suggest that the movie depended far too much on actions to drive the plot forward at the expense of dialogue.
But even such a flaw cannot detract from the superb storytelling. The portrayal of the villains is one instance in which the movie might actually outdo the book; as Katniss has no insight into these characters’ motivations and intentions, they come off as cartoonishly evil. In the movie, President Snow reveals himself to be a cunning dictator: give the people just enough hope and they will toe the line. Rather than the cackles that usually accompany dastardly deeds, the Gamemakers are simply portrayed as men and women who lack any sympathy for the Tributes; for all the emotion they demonstrate, they could just as well be designing a video game rather than orchestrating the deaths of children.
The Hunger Games is one of the very rare instances where the movie is on par with the book. Ross remains true to the book without blindly reproducing it on the screen; his additions enhance the book rather than detract from it. For the millions of fans who have been waiting for this movie, it exceeds expectations. It is gratifying to know that once in a while, the odds are in our favor.