Here’s what’s extraordinary about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: not much, really. Don’t misunderstand; it’s a solid, satisfying read, no crime against literature, unlike other much-adored recent book series we could name. But Collins mines familiar dystopian ground with her blood-and-circuses concept that has fueled everything from Death Race 2000 to The Running Man. Yep, there’s little that’s new under the dome of the battle arena—except the character at the center.
Director Gary Ross does the one thing he absolutely had to do in his adaptation: Give audiences a Katniss Everdeen worthy of Collins’ strong, utterly human heroine who isn’t defined by the men around her, unlike other much-adored recent book series we could name. The remarkable Jennifer Lawrence plays the teenager who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister in the ritual competition to the death known as The Hunger Games; she’s equally convincing as the uncompromising spirit who shakes up a crowd with a demonstration of her archery prowess, and as the introvert frustrated at the idea that she has to become a likeable reality-television star. And she nails the beginning of the competition itself, as a terrified Katniss visibly shakes at the fate awaiting her.
The Hunger Games soars when Lawrence’s Katniss is the focal point—and when she’s not, it doesn’t. The screenplay features frustrating inefficiencies, and while the dialogue is spare, when it comes, it’s too often baldly expository. Josh Hutcherson—as Katniss’ District 12 co-combatant, Peeta—also disappears into the background, unable to match Lawrence’s committed performance.
As is the case with the book, the second half’s focus on sheer survival propels the narrative forward in a generally satisfying way, but at its best, The Hunger Games isn’t really about The Hunger Games. It’s a showcase for the low-key ferocity of Jennifer Lawrence, playing the kind of hero who’s always the most compelling: one who changes the world simply by doing what she believes is the only right thing to do.
THE HUNGER GAMES
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Wes Bentley