Movie Review: The Hunger Games
By Ryan Mazie
March 21, 2012

Wow, that stick in your butt goes all the way up!

Let’s get things straight. I have read The Hunger Games. After my friends’ constant suggestions to read the book, I finally borrowed a copy as a quick read to cool down from the excitement of The Girl Who Played With Fire (the book I read before was Lies that Chelsea Handler Told Me, so yes – my small novel collection looks like an airport book store). I enjoyed the concept of children fighting to the death as a part of a reality series in a dystopian society that is a futuristic version of America, which is divided into districts after war. I breezed through the book (thanks to the surprisingly childish writing), and I got into sync with the characters. However, with a non-cliffhanger, satisfying ending, I never felt the need to read the next two installments.

Now that you carnivorous Hunger Game fans (who I have to compliment for being more mentally stable compared to your Twilight-cohorts) know my background with the series, I have some good news to bring you: the movie adaptation isn’t half-bad. Less Twilight, yet not close to Harry Potter-quality, The Hunger Games is a step in the right direction for young adult book adaptations that outside of the Boy Wizard franchise have consistently underwhelmed.

For those of you who haven’t read the book (and judging by its 100+ consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, that number would be few) or have been living under a rock, missing its ubiquitous and effective marketing campaign (take note John Carter), The Hunger Games centers on Katniss Everdeen. Living in District 12, the poorest district of Panem, Katniss (the perfectly cast Jennifer Lawrence) is a headstrong 16-year-old bow-and-arrow huntress who volunteers as a tribute for the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister. For the sadistic games, each of the 12 districts must randomly select one boy and girl to send into the forested arena where they murder their opponents in any way needed to survive; for there is only one winner.

Contrasting Katniss’ cold demeanor is District 12’s boy tribute, the crowd-pleasing Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).

Shepherded into the games by the ditzy and kitschy Effie Trinket (a barely recognizable Elizabeth Banks), drunken mentor and previous game winner Haymitch (a delightfully tipsy Woody Harrelson), and inspirational fashion coordinator Cinna (Lenny Kravitz playing essentially himself but with gold eye-liner), the team of adults help conjure up a star-crossed lovers back-story for the two tributes to entice sponsors (companies pay for supply drop-offs to players they’d like to see win).

While reading, you are able to accept the authorial laziness. Seeing it put to film, the borrowed plot points (ie. any futuristic dystopian sci-fi novel) and the lack of criticism on current culture become more noticeable, making for a weaker movie unlikely to withstand the test of time.

Unlikely director-writer for the project Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) along with co-writers Billy Ray (State of Play, Breach, Volcano) and the series’ writer Suzanne Collins do a fine job condensing the book. Although written in first person, the heavy action in The Hunger Games easily lends itself to film. They cleverly intercut the game’s host (Stanley Tucci) and producer (Wes Bentley) throughout the movie to quickly fill in the audience on details and background information without disrupting the pace.

The casting is fine with Jennifer Lawrence (the fabulous X-Men: First Class and Winter’s Bone) delivering a thankfully captivating performance. Lawrence, unlike Kristen “lip-bitter” Stewart, is self-assured and displays vulnerability and energy beneath a steely and tired exterior. Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right, Journey 2) is friendly enough as the gregarious loverboy who knows when to turn on and off the charm. The established adult cast of Harrelson, Tucci, and Banks each should not disappoint fans of the book with their spot-on interpretations, especially the scene-stealing Banks who plays Effie with just the right amount of airiness.

The film’s biggest downfall is its budget. Made by mini-studio Lionsgate, The Hunger Games just looks and feels cheap. Rumored to have cost around $80 million (a figure that almost all box office pundits and even the studio itself predicts it should blow by in a $100 million+ opening weekend), it is hard to see where it all went. The CGI is subpar when creating the futuristic District 1 of Panem and the costumes are either hit (Effie’s garish outfits) or miss (Katniss’ dress made out of fire). Fun fact: Judianna Makovsky is the costume designer – she also designed for the first Harry Potter movie. The lack of funds is most noticeable with the CGI beasts towards the end.

Possibly holding the record for the least amount of wide shots in an action film, The Hunger Games is frustratingly claustrophobic. Director Ross fails to bring any beauty to the shots and the constant close-ups make the fight scenes a blur - although that may be partially intentional so the film can earn a PG-13 rating, featuring some brutal yet bloodless violence, all involving children.

Cinematographer Tom Stern, who was also behind the aesthetically pleasing Hereafter and Changeling, has seemingly forgotten to bring along a tripod on some days, randomly implying the hand-held camera technique periodically throughout the film. In other words, there is no need to see this in IMAX unless you want to appreciate Jennifer Lawrence’s face - which actually may be worth the surcharge, on second thought.

The studio is already so confident that the film will be a success, they set a release date months ago for the sequel. Catching Fire is scheduled for November 22, 2013 (the release date previously reserved for Harry Potter/Twilight films. With a little more than a year and a half to go, this will have a quick turnaround schedule). Thus, I am sure my criticism will do little to sway your decision in going to see this review-proof film. A record-breaking more than a million people already have pre-ordered tickets off of Fandango. However, if I can adjust your levels of anticipation, I feel as if I got something accomplished.

An okay start to the franchise, my hope for The Hunger Games craving fans is that the next installment can only improve in quality. And to them, “may the odds be ever in your favor.”

6 out of 10