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'The Hunger Games' exceeds expectations

Posted: March 29, 2012 - 9:28am
AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close
Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen, left, and Liam Hemsworth portrays Gale Hawthorne in a scene from “The Hunger Games.”

"The Hunger Games"
Lionsgate Films
2 hours, 22 minutes

I think I knew "The Hunger Games" was going to exceed my expectations about 10 minutes in, during the emotional "Reaping" scene, wherein our heroine essentially offers to sacrifice her life for that of her 12-year old sister. My friend, who came into the theater knowing almost nothing about the story, looked over at me with tears in her eyes and silently asked, "What did you bring me to?"

This is just the start of an emotional roller coaster ride that never lets up on the tension, even for a second.

Film adaptations of beloved novels are a tricky thing. Sometimes they get it right, like "Harry Potter," and sometimes they get it wrong, like "Twilight." Actually, that's not fair. I haven't read any of the "Twilight" books, but I can't imagine they could possibly be as boring and senseless as those movies. But I digress. There'll be plenty of time for bashing "Twilight" next fall.

"The Hunger Games" is particularly problematic because of it's central plot device: kids killing kids. A brief backstory tells of a futuristic America where the country is split into 13 districts, each specializing in something for the whole -- farming, industry, coal, etc. The new nation is called Panem, and ruled with an iron fist by the Capitol. Too iron, in fact, because nearly a century before present day, the districts rebelled and fought a horrible civil war with the Capitol -- a war they lost. Now there are only 12 districts -- 13 was nuked off the map -- and as punishment, each has to offer up two "Tributes" to the Capitol once a year. These Tributes, a boy and girl each between the ages of 12 and 18, are then sent to the Hunger Games, where they will fight to the death inside a large domed preserve specifically designed and tailored for that particular contest.

To make matters worse, the Games are broadcast and rabidly devoured by the shallow denizens of the Capitol. The Games are also broadcast in the districts, adding insult to injury.

Enter Katniss Everdeen, our aforementioned heroine and the female Tribute from District 12. With her male counterpart, Peeta, in tow, as well as their trainer, Haymitch, Katniss will travel from the shabby, poverty-stricken squalor that is her home to the shining extravagance of the Capitol. Here she will briefly train, be primped and paraded in front of the crowd, and then thrust into a fight for her life.
But Katniss is no ordinary girl. Intense determination, deadly skill with a bow, and uncommon compassion will keep her from being a pawn in anyone's game.

There are a few small gripes I had with the film, mostly little changes from page to screen, but honestly, they aren't really the point. A film should stand on its own, and "The Hunger Games" certainly does that. A big part of the film's success lies in the brilliant direction from writer/director Gary Ross. Not only does Ross not allow the story to lag, which at 2 1/2 hours is saying something, but he deftly avoids the biggest potential complication in a movie like this: how to create a distance between the Games and the moviegoers and yet still keep the story's immediacy. The last thing you'd want in a film like this is to allow the theater-going audience to fall into the same trap that the Capitol's audience does -- that of rooting for a victor in this bloody contest. You don't want Katniss to "win" so much as you want her to get home. 

Ross never glamorizes the violence, never sanctifies it, never justifies it. These are kids after all, even the "villains," and Ross doesn't let you forget it.

The movie's biggest asset, however, is Jennifer Lawrence, who completely nails the role of Katniss. She is perfect in the part, beautifully layering her character with vulnerability and real grit. In fact, I liked the Katniss in the film better than I did the one in the book. Lawrence's performance completely anchors the film, which bodes well for the inevitable sequels. The rest of the cast is good, with big stars like Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland, to up and comers like Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. Everyone does a fine job, but Lawrence outshines them all.

I know there have been a lot of reservations from parents about the film, and why not? Kids killing kids. Doesn't sound particularly uplifting. It is a testament, however, to both the source material by author Suzanne Collins, and the film that that lurid description doesn't come close to describing the truth of the story.

There is social commentary galore, and a strong lesson about the haves and the have-nots and how easy it is for those in privileged positions to forget about the humanity of the less fortunate.

"The Hunger Games" is also a blistering critique of reality television, specifically that particular brand which celebrates the negative and delights in regularly crushing the spirits of the competitors, sending them home in tears. I'm looking at you Donald Trump.

Sure, these shows are entertaining, but mostly because we tell ourselves that everything we are seeing is so produced and predetermined that the people we're seeing aren't real people. Are the residents of the Capitol really so different?

"The Hunger Games" is rated PG-13, and that rating is appropriate, depending on the kid. If we had a rating for 15, I might be more comfortable with that, but as it stands there is far more positive than negative to be gained by watching the film. That's not true nearly often enough.

Grade: A

"The Hunger Games" is rated PG-13 for violence, some of it disturbing, involving teens.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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