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Family Movie Review: The Hunger Games (PG-13)

Director Gary Ross’s adaptation of “The Hunger Games” is a whirlwind of unrivaled despair, calculated political espionage, and measured hope, a film that relies on urgent, shaky camerawork and claustrophobic cinematography to get its point across. “The Hunger Games” is worlds away from that other hot teen commodity, “Twilight,” which was about a mostly hapless and self-destructive girl caught between two domineering boys who both claimed to love her madly (and, you know, wanted to control her). Yes, “Hunger Games” protagonist Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) struggles with her feelings about best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and fellow Tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), but Collins’ book and this film aren’t purely about that romance. Instead, it’s a take on what we need to survive: When there isn’t enough food to go around and parents are mostly absent and basic infrastructure is lacking, what role can love really play? Is it even responsible for us to crave something for ourselves, or is it selfish? When do the needs of the individual begin to rival the supremacy of the state?

Perhaps that makes it sound too high-brow, but “The Hunger Games” works mainly because it’s so visceral. Some years from now in a dystopian future, catastrophes and revolts transformed North America into Panem, a nation comprised of the luxurious, rich Capitol and 12 surrounding Districts, mostly poverty-stricken and controlled by the main city. President Snow (Donald Sutherland, of “Horrible Bosses” and “The Mechanic”) lives in the Capitol, along with thousands of other residents who eat well, dress outlandishly, and generally think about nothing going on outside their own walls. In contrast, those in the Districts rarely have enough to eat, and  spend all their time specializing in various industries—fishing, agriculture, technology, etc.—that support the Capitol. The Districts have nothing for themselves.

In coal-mining District 12, the most desolate and trampled of them all, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence, of “Winter’s Bone”) struggles to provide for her family. Her father died in a mine explosion; her mother is mostly mentally absent; and her 12-year-old sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is still just a child. Every week Katniss illegally hunts with her best friend Gale (Hemsworth, of “The Last Song”) and sells the game to other citizens; it’s the only way she can scrape her family by. Gale is bitter and sarcastic, often railing against the greed and corruption of the Capitol, but he muses about running away with Katniss one day. There are emotions between the two of them that Katniss can’t quite figure out.

She doesn’t really have time to dwell on dating, though, when it’s time for the Reaping. Every year the Capitol, to strike fear into the hearts of its citizens, randomly selects a teen boy and girl from every District to fight to the death in the Hunger Games, a reality TV-style tournament that airs throughout Panem. Everyone between the ages of 12 and 18 is required to put their name in the fishbowl to be picked, and the victor is rich for the rest of their lives, which entices some Districts to train would-be contestants, nicknamed Careers, in the art of killing.

But this year it’s Primrose’s first time in the bowl, and this year she gets picked, and this year Katniss volunteers to take her place, sending her into a competition she doesn’t believe she can win. Along with male District 12 tribute Peeta (Hutcherson, of “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”), their Capitol etiquette guide Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, of “Man on a Ledge”), and their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, of “Friends with Benefits”), who won the Hunger Games in his year, Katniss travels to the Capitol to train and prepare. There she meets Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), her wardrobe and image consultant whose aim is to help her and Peeta “make an impression” in order to get viewers on their side, and she and Peeta get to know each other. She has a history with Peeta, the boy with the bread, but since they’re supposed to kill each other, they can’t really be best friends—a reality that burns for Peeta, whose lingering gazes on Katniss hint at a deeper longing.

That setup and character background is the first hour of the 142-minute film; the rest is all that teen-on-teen killing, which really ratchets home the hopelessness of life in Panem. As Katniss is thrust into the arena, she befriends a fellow fighter—District 11 female tribute Rue (Amanda Stenberg)—and begins to rethink the point of the Hunger Games, but there’s no time for explicit harping on about the evil of the Capitol. It’s all there for you to soak in, in the ruined lives of innocent youths.

What Ross does wonderfully, however, is leave much of that gore and carnage up to your imagination—a smart move to keep the film’s PG-13 rating while also maximizing the audience’s emotional involvement. His focus on details is excellent: How the dust has settled into the clothes of everyone in District 12, beleaguering its residents with the irreversibility of their forlorn circumstances; the blood dripping off the weapons of the Careers once the Games begin; the pristine cleanliness of the Capitol compared with the Districts’ pennilessness. That kind of micro attention creates a fully realized world, a tangible Panem that makes “The Hunger Games” that much more engrossing—and, at times, devastating.

But Ross couldn’t do this without an overwhelmingly strong cast, and Lawrence gets it right as Katniss. On a surface level, Katniss is similar to Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated turn as Ree in “Winter’s Bone”—both were teen girls struggling to support their families in dire circumstances—but Lawrence has more opportunities for emotional frailty here, moments of fragility and sadness that give her character agency. As her main male counterpart, Hutcherson does similarly well. In Collins’ novel, Peeta is the boy steadfast in his determination to protect Katniss, no matter the cost, and Hutcherson brings a kind of genuine do-gooderness to the proceedings. The puppy dog eyes don’t hurt.

And rounding everything out are the iconic Sutherland as the menacing President Snow; wonderfully amusing Harrelson as the drunk-but-seasoned Haymitch; insanely charismatic Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickman; smartly understated Kravitz as Katniss’s confidante and secondary mentor Cinna; and impressively sympathetic Wes Bentley as Gamemaker Seneca Crane, in a role expanded from Collins’ book. Gazing at his crazy beard design alone is worth the price of admission.

If you wanted a 100 percent identical version of Collins’ book onscreen, you won’t get that here. Differences include the origin of Katniss’s mockingjay pin, what hand the District 12 residents use to deliver their three-finger salute, who whistled the tune to the mockingjays during the Hunger Games, and a smattering of other details. Most troublesome thematically, however, is how the film assumes its audience already knows some of the characters’ inner thoughts, so they aren’t explored. Most glaring is Katniss’s confusion over her feelings about Peeta and her initial decision to befriend him as a way to gain support from viewers of the Hunger Games. This conflict, and Katniss’s guilt over whether she’s leading Peeta on, is explicitly discussed in Collins’ book, but in the film it’s hinted at in a way that would be unfulfilling for those who aren’t aware of the source material.

But those changed elements don’t ruin Ross’s overall adaptation, which keeps the rebellious spirit of the novel while heightening the sense of nervous urgency. “Make sure they remember you,” Haymitch says to Katniss, but he needn’t worry. You won’t be able to forget “The Hunger Games.”

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