THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE HUNGER GAMES"
Few literary adaptations have been as eagerly anticipated as The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins' young adult novel – the first of three – has a large, devoted following comprised of both teens and grown-ups. And for good reason, too; it's a smart, well-written page-turner that seemed perfect for the big screen. Of course, we all know that sometimes the most cinematic books make for the worst movies. Filmmakers either tinker too much with the plot, or are so slavish to it that they end up suffocating the thing. For this reason, it gives me great pleasure to say that The Hunger Games gets it exactly right.
The story, for those unfamiliar with it, takes place in a dystopian future, where twelve districts once rebelled against the government. The rebellion was put down, and now, as punishment, each district must offer up one of its young people every year for a series of televised “games” in which the last one standing wins a surplus of food. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a young woman from the downtrodden coal-mining region known as District 12, who volunteers for the games after her innocent little sister is chosen from the lottery. The male “tribute” from the district is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), another teen with whom Katniss has a somewhat foggy acquaintance. Under the tutelage of former winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the two train for the fierce games. Haymitch also advises them to pretend to be in love, knowing that the audience will eat it up and, hopefully, “sponsor” them, i.e. provide emergency shipments during the game.
The first half of The Hunger Games shows the preparations Katniss goes through, while her would-be boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) waits nervously back home. She is interviewed by flamboyant TV personality Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci), styled by fashion expert Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and monitored by district official Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). The second half finds her fighting for her life in the games, where many of her competitors are ruthless. She and Peeta align to stay alive, but since there can only be one winner, both know that the arrangement won't last forever. Meanwhile, the games' creator, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and the President (Donald Sutherland), await the results with great interest.
Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) - who penned the screen adaptation along with Collins and Billy Ray – does a very smart thing: he doesn't treat the material like a young adult story. So many films based on YA novels feel distinctly juvenile. The best ones (think Harry Potter) have a seriousness of purpose that makes them enjoyable for all age groups. Ross gives the scenes set in District 12 a suitably grim atmosphere that makes you feel exactly what's at stake for Katniss. The scenes set in the “arena” pay that off. Without going excessively overboard on violence, Ross suggests the horror of what is essentially kids killing kids. Best of all, the film doesn't shy away from the underlying themes in Collins' novel: that young people have untapped potential for violence; that “reality” TV shows require manufactured drama; that death and destruction are marketable entertainment commodities. Those ideas made the book special, so it's wonderful that the movie retains them.
The casting is pretty much perfect. Jennifer Lawrence is a great Katniss Everdeen, plausibly conveying both the character's outer toughness and her inner compassion. She's well matched with Josh Hutcherson, who keeps you guessing as to whether Peeta really loves her or is just doing what he thinks it will take to survive. The other standout is Woody Harrelson, who portrays the boozing mentor. He brings some humor to the picture while still maintaining believability as a guardian to these teens.
In book form, The Hunger Games was smart, provocative, exciting, and fun. The movie is all those things too. Everything comes together to bring a terrific story to life in a different format. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I still found myself tensing up during the games and caring about Katniss' quest to survive. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay The Hunger Games is to say that it in no way feels like a cash-in. This picture wasn't made because the filmmakers thought it would make them rich. It will, of course, but you can tell they made it because they love the story and the ideas contained within it. Whether you've read the novel or not, The Hunger Games is a movie that engrosses you with good storytelling, likeable characters, and an emotionally engaging central scenario. They nailed it.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Hunger Games is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens. The running time is 2 hours and 22 minutes.
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