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Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games



"Thank you for your consideration."

To read Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" trilogy is to develop a personal relationship with - and deep, genuine love of - its heroic teenage protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. The world Katniss inhabits, Panem (Latin for "bread"), a post-apocalyptic North America divided into 13 ravaged Districts ruled over by a malevolent Capitol, is seen entirely through Katniss' eyes and point of view. We live with Katniss, hunt with her, fight with her, cry with her, suffer with her, mourn with her, and triumph with her as she is thrust into a televised fight to the death against 23 other teenagers in an annual "pageant" called The Hunger Games. Director Gary Ross' hotly anticipated The Hunger Games feature film ultimately succeeds as an adaptation of the novel, though it is burdened by a constant, at times even brutal battle between what's captured on screen and what is in the mind's eye of the audience who loves the books. 

The Hunger Games starts off oddly, in almost dampened fashion. Once the premise is established, the early scenes present District 12 as monochromatic and muted, almost lifeless. The hustle and bustle of people just living their lives and struggling to get by one imagines when reading is replaced with empty, dusty roads and pallid faces huddling in their shanties or trudging to the coal mines. The Hunger Games begins to build momentum when Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked off to the Capitol, a futuristic city where it seems Paris Fashion Week has run amok, encounter their drunken but kind-hearted mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and begin training for the Arena. Katniss' relationship with her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, the most welcome presence of the supporting cast) is spot-on in how he supports and empowers her. ("Katniss Everdeen, are you gonna go my way?") Stanley Tucci contributes flamboyant wit and pizzazz as ever-grinning talk show host Caesar Flickerman. Once Katniss is in the Arena, The Hunger Games goes for broke, not shying away from the horrific violence of children slaughtering children but doing its best to level the disturbing impact. 

A big surprise of The Hunger Games is the shifting of prominence of key supporting characters. The novels give credence to Gale Hawthrone (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' best friend and closest ally in District 12, that is almost entirely missing from the film. Gale is reduced to a few reaction shots and jealous discomfort as he watches Katniss fight in the Games and put on a romantic "showmance" with Peeta, the baker's son who always loved her. The memorable Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) becomes merely an fleeting collection of bon mots and a punching bag for Haymitch's quips. Other characters, like Katniss' mother (Paula Malcomson), feel like blanks on the screen.

Meanwhile, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, giving his best performance since American Beauty), the Gamesmaker responsible for designing The Hunger Games' Arena, curiously emerges as one of the movie's most pivotal characters. The Hunger Games cannily opens up the narrative beyond Katniss' point of view and gives us scenes between Crane and the fearsome President Snow (Donald Sutherland) which accentuate the themes of the story and plant seeds for the sequels. Crane's demise, only hinted at in "Catching Fire", is ironic and impactful. It's a shame Seneca Crane didn't animate a floating plastic bag in the Arena and then burst into tears about how beautiful it is.

First and foremost, The Hunger Games belongs to its star. In Jennifer Lawrence, Gary Ross found the right actress to portray Katniss. Honestly, Lawrence looks nothing like the Katniss my mind's eye envisioned, but having experienced her portrayal of the "Girl on Fire", she has defined the role. Lawrence owns The Hunger Games; she is on screen 99% of the time, as she should be, vociferously embodying all of Katniss' complex emotions, vulnerabilities, humanity, and her steel core of heroism. (Not to mention Lawrence has the best snarls maybe in the history of movies.) Ross' camera lovingly captures Lawrence's beauty, especially lingering on her lips as the bowstring of an arrow about to be launched is pressed against them.

Lawrence performs with startling verisimilitude, especially in the minutes before Katniss enters the Arena, when she hugs Cinna goodbye and is gripped with palpable fear. We feel her anguish when Katniss volunteers to take her beloved little sister Prim's (Willow Shields) place in the Games, and when she has to bury young Rue (Amandla Stenberg) in the Arena. Katniss laments not being "likeable", but we cheer her heartily when she shoots an arrow at the Gamesmakers to force their attention (and then curtsy bows) and when she survives terrifying fire bombings, multiple attacks, and searing injuries in the Arena. Lawrence delivers a magnificent Best Actress-caliber performance that will likely, and unfairly, go unrecognized during the 2012 awards season. Regardless of awards and accolades, Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen, the Katniss fans of the novels deserve. She's for real.