Complexity and understatement are two criminally under-utilized values in most mainstream movies these days, but they’re at the core of, and the chief reason for the success of “The Hunger Games.” Director Gary Ross, screenwriter of the proletariat presidential fantasy “Dave” and writer-director of the social-consciousness-as-sci-fi tome “Pleasantville,” has always engaged his subjects with a light and yet substantial touch, but his adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ acclaimed young-adult novel is a truly remarkable achievement: he turns escapism into a deeply emotional experience. Instantly razing comparisons – qualitative especially -- to other female-friendly series such as “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games” is the first film in a long time that deserves Hollywood’s instant-franchise ambitions because it appeals to genre fans regardless of gender by crafting a story that’s both epic and intimate, spectacular and subtle.
In the poverty-stricken, post-apocalyptic Appalachia of Panem’s District 12, Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a fearlessly determined teenager who cares for her mother (Paula Malcolmson) and sister Primrose (Willow Shields) as the country’s wealthy live far away in the frivolous opulence of the Capitol. Despite ambitions to escape into the wilderness with longtime best friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’ family loyalty keeps her tethered close to home; but after Primrose is chosen as a contestant for The Hunger Games, an annual competition in which two teenagers from every district participate in a no-holds-barred battle to the death, she volunteers in her little sister’s place. Whisked off to the Capital for promotion, training and grooming by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) respectively, Katniss reluctantly begins preparation for (literally) the fight of her life.
After Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is chosen as the other contestant from District 12, however, Katniss becomes further conflicted; not only do they know one another, but he is in love with her -- and he publicly professes his feelings during an interview before the games. But as the world watches their “star-crossed romance” unfold against the backdrop of a deadly competition, Katniss’ resolve is challenged as she is forced to decide how far she will go in order to survive – especially after President Snow (Donald Sutherland) starts to exert pressure on Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) to change the rules in order to make the Games more entertaining.
For a film that demands two paragraphs of detailed plot description, one of the great virtues of “The Hunger Games” is that it leaves a hell of a lot of stuff unspoken. The dimensions of the world and the rules of the Games notwithstanding, the story occupies itself almost exclusively with Katniss’ interior life – the exhausting dedication to keeping her mother clear-eyed and her sister safe, the determination to win the Hunger Games only in order to return home to them, and the reverberations of her familial relationships in the ones that develop as she prepares for and later engages in battle. She almost never simply says how she’s feeling, and it’s that restraint that draws in the audience as she embarks on this journey of self-discovery, because we get to discover her at the exact same time.
More remarkably, she turns out to be smart, resourceful and self-reliant – a heroine who’s sophisticated and interesting, and perhaps most importantly, never defined by her relationship to a male counterpart, or the absence of one. Although Gale and later Peeta are worthy companions for a young woman as fierce and independent as Katniss, the film never languishes in love-triangle melodrama. Further, the development of the burgeoning romance between Katniss and Peeta during the games feels appropriately half-hearted because her focus is on her family, not “her fella,” and the film briefly even becomes a metatextual commentary on audience-friendly storytelling conventions when the duo’s handlers acknowledge the appeal of a star-crossed coupling and encourage Katniss to exploit it to keep both her and Peeta in the Games.
It certainly helps that the cast is comprised of folks with real talent, who were then directed to give nuanced, complex performances. If there’s a pair of eyes more entrancing than Lawrence’s in movies today, I have yet to see them, but the reason she continues to captivate even after you’ve submitted to her more superficial charms is because the young actress has a commanding physical presence, palpable intelligence and acting ability to bring all of those qualities together. Katniss quite frankly is almost an ideal female movie character -- strong and vulnerable in equal measures, complicated, and not always likeable but endlessly sympathetic – and Lawrence delivers far more than even the script demands. That we wonder how deep Katniss’ feelings run for Peeta at the end of the film is a testament not only to the script’s subtlety and deliberate ambiguity, but the sophistication of Lawrence’s performance in the role.
Meanwhile, Hutcherson and Hemsworth both create lust-worthy leading men, but in a way that builds off of the script’s determination not to overpower the audience with an instantaneous preference; rather than pitting the “obvious” choice against the appealing also-ran, Edward-versus-Jacob style, the two actors are equals in terms of both immediate appeal and deeper substance, and they introduce and establish their characters ably while willingly taking second place to Katniss’ more practical concerns. And while most of the Capitol-dwellers, including characters played by Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones and Elizabeth Banks, are as well-defined by their outrageous outfits as their effectively exaggerated performances, Kravitz and Harrelson quietly rescue the rest of the adult cast members from feeling mostly lost in the film’s fantasy world, managing to embrace the theatricality of their surroundings while offering meatier and more thoughtful turns opposite their younger costars.
Among the movie’s only real shortcomings are its frenetic, handheld visual style, and its occasional (unexplained to rubes like yours truly) digressions to satiate fans of the source material. Ross is a gifted director, but on this film it seems like he showed up late to a Paul Greengrass party – the camera too frequently, and often unjustifiably, shivers and shimmies through sequences that would be just as effective were they shot with a tripod. (There’s a knife fight towards the end of the film where I never saw the knife.) Meanwhile, Ross and co. understandably kowtow to some fan expectations, but in many cases those choices feel superfluous – escalation of action that’s already sufficiently dramatic, or the introduction of a character who’s underdeveloped or unnecessary.
That said, the great thing about shortcomings like those is that they only further serve to highlight what a great job the filmmakers did otherwise bringing this material to life, and making it such an effective ride on its own terms. Ultimately, Ross hasn’t just successfully mounted an adaptation of a hot literary property, or even launched a film series that earns the right to be a franchise. He’s produced an engaging, thoughtful, populist piece of entertainment that transcends gender, genre or source material. The rare blockbuster that’s as smart as it is spectacular, “The Hunger Games” offers a full meal and still makes you want to go back for more. [B+]