It’s been over 10 long years since The Hunger Games hit theaters to (mostly) critical praise and commercial success. The shocking story of Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) takedown of the corrupt Capitol headed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) transformed young adult novel adaptations, morphing them from the likes of glittery vampires and boy wizards into dark allegories of war and the circular nature of violence.
Suzanne Collins’ brilliant trilogy of novels launched a series drenched in YA tropes — dystopian future, love triangle, the kitschy premise — and had the gall to turn it into a potent tragedy bursting with violence and fascinating political intrigue. The story takes some interesting turns on the way to its bittersweet conclusion, which lingers on the aftermath of the nasty conflict — a choice that somehow makes the events seem all the more real.
Translating these novels to the screen was always going to be a difficult task. How do you market a grim franchise whose core focus revolves around the callous murder of innocent children?
Lucky for Lionsgate, writer/director Gary Ross was up to the challenge, and the veteran filmmaker attacked Collins’ subject matter head-on with 2012’s The Hunger Games. Boasting a rather modest budget, Ross manages to bring this depraved future society to life via the use of handheld cameras and clever editing. And while some may balk at the restraint Ross shows in regards to the death and mayhem of the actual games, his kinetic approach shows just enough to highlight the grisly violence while leaving the rest to our imagination.
Still, the key to The Hunger Games’ success lies in its pitch perfect casting. Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Evergreen through and through — it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Her performance somehow grounds the insanity; and her character is equal parts entranced, terrific, and disgusted by this new world. I love the scene where she goes on TV and speaks with Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman. She’s forced to attract an audience she detests to love her in order to obtain sponsors.
There’s a great scene between Katniss and Peeta (embodied by the terrific Josh Hutcherson) that could have played out in a cloying fashion, but works thanks to the actors’ understated performances:
Similarly, Lawrence’s quiet reaction to Rue’s (Amandla Stenberg) death somehow makes the scene feel even more tragic:
Lawrence is aided by stellar bit players. As I said, Hutcherson embodies Peeta with enough self-doubt to make the character something of a plucky underdog, even if he has plenty of nobility. Liam Hemsworth makes the most of his limited screentime as Katniss’ friend Gale, while Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks offer fine support as the drunken Haymitch and the sprightly, make-up caked Effie. Lenny Kravitz and Wes Bentley also lend a hand in their respective roles.
Oh, and Sutherland as the diabolical President Snow is quite literally perfection.
Ultimately, The Hunger Games does its job and establishes a unique new world and a handful of interesting characters for audiences to empathize with. It certainly follows the YA adaptation mantra right down to Snow’s cryptic walk up the stairs in the final scene — foreshadowing further entries to come. Except, where failed attempts such as The Golden Compass, Percy Jackson, Mortal Instruments, Eragon, etc. leaned too hard on spectacle to attract moviegoers, Ross and Co. wisely focused their attention on quiet character interactions to sell their story.
That’s not to say the film is perfect. Some of the effects are dated and Ross’ use of the “shaky cam” does get a little gratuitous from time to time. Rue’s relationship with Katniss needed a little more time to breathe so it could really nail the emotional punch that derives from her death, and the big finale involving mutant dogs and one-dimensional villain Cato (Alexander Ludwig) feels a little undercooked. However, as far as intros go, The Hunger Games delivers and sets the stage for even greater adventures in its subsequent sequels. The decade since its release has not blunted the impact of Collins’ source material, either. Here we have an emotional, action-packed, potent drama with a lot of heart and plenty of thrills.
The odds were certainly in this one’s favor.