THE HUNGER GAMES
Author: JoAnne Hyde
March 22, 2012

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SYNOPSIS: Every year in the ruins of what was once North America, the evil Capitol of the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games. A twisted punishment for a past uprising and an ongoing government intimidation tactic, The Hunger Games are a nationally televised event in which "Tributes" must fight with one another until one survivor remains. Pitted against highly-trained Tributes who have prepared for these Games their entire lives, Katniss is forced to rely upon her sharp instincts as well as the mentorship of drunken former victor Haymitch Abernathy. If she's ever to return home to District 12, Katniss must make impossible choices in the arena that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

To all fans of Suzanne Collinsís insanely popular The Hunger GamesÖ

The odds are ever in our favor!

It looks like the film adaptation of the novel will open to record box office totals -- a well-deserved accolade. Like so many others, I had reservations about how the novel would translate to film. Would Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, and Josh Hutcherson do justice to the beloved trio of characters -- Katniss, Gale, and Peeta? Would the excesses and decadence of the Capitol be adequately expressed? Would the dramatic opening ceremony to the Games be breathtaking, or would CGI make it impossible to believe? Would it be possible to communicate the savagery of The Games and still qualify for a PG-13 rating? And, most importantly, would someone who hasnít read the novel be able to follow and understand the narrative?

The answer is an unequivocal yes! The Hunger Games takes place in a bleak future when the 12 districts of the country Panem are completely controlled by a totalitarian system -- centered in the Capitol -- headed by the ruthless President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The higher the number of the district, the lower the standard of living. Main character Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), her best friend/hunting companion Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) and their mother (Paula Malcomson) live in District 12 -- the poorest district. Itís the mining district where Katniss has been the backbone of her family since her fatherís death in a mine explosion and her motherís accompanying depressive, sometimes catatonic, state. Also residing in District 12, and adoring Katniss from afar, is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) , the son of the town baker. Most people in District 12 are starving, so Katniss and Gale have found a breech in the electrified fence surrounding District 12, and regularly escape into the adjacent forest to hunt small game -- both to eat and to trade for other goods. Both of them have become expert archers.

The Hunger Games came into being as punishment for a past rebellion against the Capitol. Annually, each district must provide a 12 to 18 year-old girl and boy as tribute -- chosen by lottery -- to be transported to the Capitol where they will fight to the death in an arena created by the Gamemaster, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). District 12ís ďcoordinatorĒ Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), draws the names and oversees the tributesí transport to the Capitol. When frail, timid Primroseís name is drawn, Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her place. Peeta has the misfortune of being the male tribute. Along for the ride is District 12ís only past winner, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whoís taken to heavy drinking to erase the painful memories of the deaths he inflicted to gain his victory. The tributes are afforded every luxury during their journey and subsequent training, but itís always overshadowed by their kill-or-be-killed destiny. In the Capitol, they get ďmakeoversĒ from stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), participate in training exercises, and receive advice about how to become popular with the crowd in order to receive favors in the field. The wealthier districts -- 1 and 2 -- provide career tributes, teens whoíve been trained since birth to win. However, Katniss has her prowess with the bow and arrow, and Peeta has his strength derived from years of lifting 100 lb. sacks of flour.

Allusions to the Roman Empire, although obvious in some of the charactersí names and the decadence of the Capitol residents, become prominent when the tributes are introduced at the Opening Ceremony by the flamboyant master of ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) as they arrive in horse-drawn chariots. Like gladiators, the tributes will fight to the death for the entertainment of the crowd. The film gains tremendous momentum when the games actually begin. The brutality, the alliances and betrayals, the struggle to survive both combat and the elements both terrify and mesmerize. You wonít be able to take your eyes off the screen. Of course, some modifications had to be made to maintain the PG-13 rating, so some elements of the novel are toned down or modified to be less gruesome.

Filmed in North Carolina, the setting perfectly evokes the tranquil beauty of primeval forest, the dinginess of the impoverished District 12, and the unsettling uncertainty of the computer-generated outdoor arena. Indeed, if the game becomes too stagnant or boring (as in not enough deaths), the Gamemasterís technicians can insert additional virtual hazards. The rich visual imagery of the novel, contrasting beauty and horror, has successfully been translated to the screen.

The actorsí skill in interpreting the strong script is the true strength of the film. Jennifer Lawrence is 5 years older than her character, which was an initial worry for me, but her strong performance over-rode my fears. She exhibits a remarkable ability to express both suppressed and visible emotion. Likewise, Josh Hutcherson makes Peeta such a sympathetic character that you canít help but identify with him. Liam Hemsworth as Gale doesnít get as much to do in the first part of the trilogy (and Iím assuming, here, that all three novels will be filmed), so we donít get to know his character as well as the others. Lenny Kravitz does an excellent job with Cinna, giving the character a quiet confidence. The always amazing Stanley Tucci gives impressive layers to Caesar -- heís all preening swagger, but occasionally he lets a bit of apprehension for the tributes emerge. Elizabeth Bankís Effie masks a self-serving, frigid heart with insincere flattery and encouragement. Woody Harrelson gives us just the appropriate balance between the jaded drunkard and the slowly-emerging mentor. As the sinister President Snow, Donald Sutherland shows a thinly-veiled malevolence.

The Hunger Games is frequently -- and erroneously -- compared to the Twilight Saga. If youíre the parent of a young teen, and you havenít read The Hunger Games, just know that it makes Twilight look like a 70ís-era Saturday morning cartoon. Itís an intense experience -- both as a novel and as a film. Itís also a fine piece of film-making, and I canít wait to see it again! - JoAnne Hyde

GRADE: A

JoAnne Hyde reviews films for BOF


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