By Caryn James | James on Screens March 22, 2012 at 8:49AM
The massive audience for The Hunger Games is easily split into two camps. There are fans of the books, who are likely to approve of the terrific Jennifer Lawrence while picking out all the details missing from Suzanne Collins’ novels. And there are people like me, blank slates about Collins’ tween-targeted series, for whom the film is a sleek, competent example of a big-budget, sure-fire commercial hit without much soul or style. And if you can’t get excited about characters in a televised fight to the death - the premise that has Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, shooting arrows through a forest for survival – what can you get excited about?
District 12, the area Katniss represents in the games, is a poor coal-mining area in the futuristic country of Panem that resembles the landscape of Winter’s Bone, the little drama that made Lawrence’s career. Lawrence brings the same tough believability to this extreme fantasy. She makes Katniss tough and sensitive without being goody-goody. That alone is remarkable, because when her little sister is chosen in a lottery to compete, one of the sacrificial victims in the compulsory games which will leave only one person alive, Katniss volunteers in her place.
She leaves behind Gale (Liam Hemsworth) her sort-of boyfriend; she is paired in the games with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a boy who likes her. Neither guy is a vampire or a werewolf, but you get the idea. More than the center of this triangle, Lawrence is the film’s great strength as the games begin and she evades opponents who want to kill her, cameras trailing her everywhere, trying to retain her humanity in a kill or be killed situation.
But Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) is a director who doesn’t leave many fingerprints, which is probably what made him a safe choice for the franchise. The action keeps moving and the costumes are comically colorful. Elizabeth Banks looks like a refuge from Tim Burton’s Alice as Effie, Katniss’ pr handler. Stanley Tucci, as a smarmy TV host, has a bizarre blue pony-tail to match his suit. Woody Harrelson is great, as always, as Haymitch, the mentor who sobers up in time to give Katniss some valuable advice.
Still, a plot that relies so heavily on a timely social theme like reality television should have a lot more resonance than this movie does. I wouldn’t warn people away; the film’s success even may spur a better, riskier sequel (the way the third Harry Potter, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, soared above the earlier two). There isn’t anything wrong with The Hunger Games that some soul and style wouldn’t fix, but that kind of safety is not what anyone - except the film’s investors - might have hoped for.