The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Hunger Games

As far as popular book series go, The Hunger Games trilogy by author Suzanne Collins is the only one I've fallen for. That sounds negative, I just liked there. Harry Potter, Twilight, Percy Jackson, any number of others, I never had a whole lot of interest in them. With 'THG,' I don't know if it was the characters, the future dystopia, the unique setting, but I loved the books and raced through all three in a little over a week before the first movie was released March 23rd. Where so many other book-to-novel transitions suffer, 2012's The Hunger Games isn't one of them.

It's sometime in the near future, and North America has ceased to exist. Instead, a government and country Panem have taken over, the country divided into 12 districts ruled with an iron fist. It has been some 80-odd years since a revolution took place, the people revolting against their rulers. The government that took control in the aftermath has installed a brutal system of rule with a yearly tribute meant to keep the population in check. It is called the Hunger Games, and once a year, a boy and a girl aged 12-18 from each district is picked at random and thrown into an arena where they will fight to the death. It is a televised event, all the population forced to watch.

In one of those districts -- District 12, looks like Appalachia -- lives 16-year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who cares for her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), and her mother who still struggles with the death of her husband in a mining accident. Katniss is the sole provider for her family and tries to calm Prim as they prepare for the Reaping, the yearly event where the 2 district "tributes" are picked for the Hunger Games. At the ceremony, Prim is selected but Katniss desperately volunteers to go in her place. With the male district tribute, a baker's son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss is whisked off to the Capitol City where she is prepared and trained for the Hunger Games and all its brutality. She can be told anything she wants, but nothing can truly prepare her for what awaits in the arena where 23 will die and only one will survive.

With many book-to-film transitions, my typical goal/objective is for the film to just not ruin the book(s) I've enjoyed so much. With Collins helping write the script, director Gary Ross passes with flying colors. 'Hunger' stays true to the book, the characters and the story. Any omissions don't hurt the movie, and any creative license goes with the flow of the book and movie. As for the future society, it gets things right. We're left in the dark as to the exact details, only seeing this totalitarian society rise up in the place of what we did know. The rich population in the Capitol are lavish, extravagant and favor heavy make-up and showy clothes. The outlying districts are just trying to survive, make it to the next day. It's still a world that feels familiar, but it is tweaked just enough to keep things interesting in all its despicable brutality.

Reading the books, I knew that Jennifer Lawrence had been cast as heroine Katniss so that definitely helped. I had a picture of what the character looked like in my head. No doubt this movie will sink or swim on how the individual viewers feel about her because she's in about 98% of the movie. This is an example of perfect casting...perfect. The sign of good acting is that you don't feel like you're watching someone act. Lawrence -- just 21 years old -- is an incredibly gifted young talent. Natural doesn't begin to describe her. It seems almost effortless with her. She's fought for everything she has in her life, and now she intends to protect her family no matter what. Having hunted and navigated the woods for years, she doesn't realize it, but she's perfectly suited to survive the Games. Good for her, not so much when her rival tributes see how talented she is. Lawrence makes Katniss a human being, not a character, just a teenage girl who's naive, strong, innocent and dead-set on protecting those she loves.

As for the rest of the cast, it's just gravy that they're uniformly and equally as well-cast, both the villains and heroes. Hutcherson has a good, easy-going chemistry with Lawrence, and his Peete has a secret that could help or hurt their chances at survival. Liam Hemsworth plays Gale, Katniss' long-time friend, the two teenagers realizing how special the other is to them only when death is on the line. The Gale character is developed considerably more in books 2 and 3. Rock star and musician Lenny Kravitz is an interesting choice (but a good one) to play Cinna, Katniss' stylist meant to build up an image of her for the viewers. Stanley Tucci is a scene-stealer as Caesar Flickerman, the amiable host of the televised Hunger Games, Toby Jones as his on-air co-host. Woody Harrelson is equally good as Haymitch, the District 12 mentor, a previous winner who teaches his new tributes with each passing year. Elizabeth Banks is surprisingly funny as the clueless Effie, the District 12 representative and guide for the tributes. As for the Capitol villains, there's Donald Sutherland as sinister President Snow and Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, the constructor of the Hunger Games arena.

The 142-minute movie is basically dived into two portions; the intro in District 12 and the Capitol, all of it building that sense of doom that leads into the second half, the actual Hunger Games (the 74th running of the event). There are no real weak or slow points in the story, but the momentum certainly picks up once Katniss is thrown into the arena with the 23 other tributes. The intro to the arena is a high-point, each tribute on a pedestal waiting for a clock to wind down. Once it runs out, it's a free for all, some running, others running toward the supplies placed in front of them. 'Hunger' earns it's PG-13 rating, but it could have been a hard R easily. The games are almost entirely shown through Katniss' eyes, a personal, adrenaline-pumping, terrifying experience of a blood-soaked sporting event. There are some secrets in store, and the tributes never know what will be thrown at them. Credit also to composer James Newton Howard's score, memorable without being overbearing. We really only get to meet two other tributes, young Rue (Amandla Stenberg), and vicious Cato (Alexander Ludwig), the others mostly known as their district number and little else.

What I came away most impressed with was that Collins' first book in the trilogy, The Hunger Games, throws a lot at the reader. A transition to the big screen seemed daunting. A mysterious and vague -- but hinted at -- past, a long list of characters who were all interesting in their own right, and a futuristic world that seems familiar to what we know, but at the same time is vastly different. The movie doesn't just pick and choose what to do, instead it does an admirable job of making that transition. A lot of that can be chalked up to Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, a star-making role if there ever was one. An incredibly worthy start to a highly successful franchise. Looking forward to what the next movies have to offer.

The Hunger Games <---trailer (2012): *** 1/2 /****

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