The Hunger Games, based on the bestselling young adult book series by Suzanne Collins, faced immense scrutiny leading up to its release. The star was too blonde. The marketing was insufficient. It was going to be the next Twilight (and not in a good way).
None of that mattered when The Hunger Games smashed its way to the third-biggest opening weekend of all time, blowing away fans and film critics alike.
The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian version of North America called Panem. After a civilian uprising, the Capitol declares an annual televised death match featuring teenagers from each of Panem’s 12 districts.
Because this history is established efficiently through on-screen text, the film is able to jump directly into the meat of the story. The film opens with members of the lavish, futuristic Capitol discussing how the Hunger Games unite Panem, followed by a brilliant quick cut to the badlands of District 12.
There we meet Katniss Everdeen, a scrappy teenager who hunts to feed her family. When her younger sister is selected for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her place and is forced to participate in the reality TV politics required to survive before and during the games. The film keeps the book’s plot mostly intact and even uses the medium of film to make significant improvements. Rather than Katniss’ inner monologue, we get exposition from Hunger Games commentators and viewers.
It fumbles the ending a little bit, however, changing some of the details in a way that noticeably cuts the tension. The film does not grant audience members enough time to absorb the last moments of the games themselves before quickly speeding through a heavily edited resolution.
There isn’t a single weak link in the cast. Jennifer Lawrence knocks it out of the park as Katniss, bringing grit and intensity to an already iconic character. Woody Harrelson brings humor and surprising gravitas to Katniss’ drunken mentor Haymitch and Lenny Kravitz plays off Lawrence beautifully as her kind designer, Cinna. Elizabeth Banks campaigned for the role of Hunger Games chaperone Effie Trinket before the movie was even announced, and the obvious delight she takes in her role makes her a pleasure to watch.
Though many action movies exploit noise and flashy explosions, director Gary Ross dwells in the silences, evoking torrents of emotion with no sound at all. The bloodbath during the first few seconds of the games is dead quiet, and the lack of music in the first chunk of the movie sets up an eerie, hyper-realistic tone. There’s a particularly powerful scene without dialogue where Haymitch, a survivor of the games himself, is watching two Capitol children play with a sword, a broken expression on his face.
Cinema makeup legend Ve Neill created the incredible look of the Capitol citizens and every extra is a visual confection unto themselves. There are also some stunning full-body paint moments involving Peeta that more than merit an Academy Award nomination.
The crowd at the midnight showing was almost as interesting as the film itself. In a scene where one of the teenage tributes brutally kills another, the whole theater cheered. It was chilling to see just how close our society is to the violence-as-entertainment politics of Panem. The themes in The Hunger Games have never been more relevant, and the film offers much more than the average franchise hit.