“The Hunger Games,” the first big mega-adaptation of the post-“Harry Potter,” nearly post-“Twilight” world, is an at-times wowing, but ultimately frustrating cinematic translation. Those who know and love the books while likely enjoy the movie, but likely won’t mean a thing to people (such as myself) who haven’t read the books.
The film, the first in a planned series, is based on Suzanne Collins’ popular young adult novels and is directed by “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit” veteran Gary Ross. The screenplay, written by Collins, Ross and “Shattered Glass” director Billy Ray, is apparently quite faithful. The fans of the book sitting behind me – mostly teenaged, but not all female- were alternately gasping, cheering and weeping throughout the running time.
Set in a dystopian future, the fascistic government of what used to be the United States is getting set for its annual “Hunger Games,” in which two teenaged entrants from each “district” enter into a woods-like area, in which they fight for the death. It’s like a demented, fight-to-the-death version of “Survivor,” in which the entire competition is broadcast worldwide as a reality show.
The best thing “Hunger Games” has going for it its lead character and the actress playing her, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. This is no Bella Swan, a whose entire existence is passive; Katniss is a compelling character who makes things happen, rather than just having them happen to her. She’s a compelling and multi-layered character, played by an actress who showed in “Winter’s Bone” and even in “X-Men: First Class” that she’s a major screen presence and talent. Which is more than I can say for just about everyone else in the film.
Katniss’ love interest is played by Josh Hutcherson, who starred as a 10-year-old in a wonderful, little-seen 2005 film called “Little Manhattan” and played the son in “The Kids Are All Right,” but here is never more than bland. Liam Hemsworth, as an earlier love interest, doesn’t make much of an impression either; nor do a slew of big-name actors in small roles, from Stanley Tucci to Donald Sutherland to Elizabeth Banks to (?) Lenny Kravitz.
Woody Harrelson, in a performance that places a distant third among movies he’s appeared in in the past three months, sports a laughable blond wig, but that’s nothing compared to the bizarre facial hair worn by the “game master” character, played by long-forgotten “American Beauty” actor Wes Bentley. Toby Jones, meanwhile, appears to be wearing Will Ferrell’s haircut from “Zoolander.”
But that’s not even the biggest problem. The movie’s story is told poorly, too slowly and with little momentum. Not only is the 142-minute running time a bit much, but this is one of those films where it hits the two-hour mark and you can’t see even the hint of an ending coming.
I also didn’t care for a second about the competition itself, probably because it’s not hard to guess who wins. Of course, it doesn’t help that the filmmakers keep changing the rules, for seemingly arbitrary reasons.
The Japanese cult film “Battle Royale” (2000) told nearly the same story much better, and was much more brutal too; “The Hunger Games” is surprisingly bloodless for a movie that’s about a group of teenagers savagely murdering one another for sport. Then again, even then we wouldn’t be able to see it; the movie’s action and fight scenes are shot in an incoherent, shaky-cam mess. I expected more from an experienced, quality director like Ross.
If nothing else, “The Hunger Games” reminded me of the “Watchmen” movie, a super-faithful adaptation that fans of the book loved and understood, but wasn’t especially interested in speaking to anyone who was a novice. I came out of the movie more interested in the possibilities the ending set up for the future than in anything that had actually happened as part of the plot.