By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin March 22, 2012 at 8:53PM
As someone who hasn’t read Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of novels, going to see The Hunger Games “cold,” I felt comforted by the presence of two young actors I admire, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. Given the downbeat nature of the story, set in a bleak future world, having warm-blooded actors who can bring life and depth to their characters is crucial.
As in any screen adaptation, this one skimps on details that are undoubtedly fleshed out in print, but we learn just enough about the ground rules of this society, made up of hedonistic “haves” and hardscrabble “have-nots,” to set the stage. The annual Hunger Games are a no-holds-barred fight to the finish among 24 adolescents, representing twelve districts, for the amusement of a television audience. Only one person walks away victorious; 23 young people die in this strange ritual.
Lawrence proved her ability to carry a character’s heavy burden in Winter’s Bone. As Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who is both physically and morally strong, she has gravitas, rarely breaking into a smile, but reveals no sign of self-seriousness. Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark isn’t as well defined: he’s had a secret crush on Katniss for years, and wound up in the Hunger Games by sheer misfortune. We can see in an instant that he lacks a killer instinct; he’s pure of heart. Hunky Liam Hemsworth has little to do in this installment of the saga, but I’m sure we’ll see more of him in parts two and three. Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz, as sympathetic “mentors” to our reluctant warrior-heroes, are the standouts in a capable supporting cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland.
Director Gary Ross (working from a screenplay he co-wrote with author Collins and Billy Ray) is admirably discreet in depicting violence, as befits the film’s target audience and PG-13 rating. I’m less enthusiastic about his choice of frantic, blurred activity to put across his action scenes, and I’ll never understand why, like so many other films, this one relies so much on extreme ultra-closeups. Whatever happened to medium shots?
It isn’t difficult to figure out where the story is headed most of the time; suspense is not this movie’s strongest suit. Given that, The Hunger Games feels long, and can’t fully justify filling more than two hours’ time. What’s more, the finale is weak, even within the constraints of a tale that is meant to be continued.
Unless I miss my guess, pre-sold fans should approve of this cinematic translation; readers will also have the benefit of having absorbed material that the screenplay was forced to leave out. I can’t feign any great enthusiasm for The Hunger Games, but it’s not bad, and gains a great deal from the presence of its sterling heroine, as played by Jennifer Lawrence. She alone makes it worth anticipating the next chapter in the story.