Review: ‘The Hunger Games’ is thrilling, emotional, deeply-felt blockbuster filmmaking

Gary Ross was, to say the least, an unconventional choice when it came to helming the adaptation of the popular young adult novels “The Hunger Games,” written by Suzanne Collins.  Ross has established himself as a particular kind of filmmaker with his work on films like “Dave,” “Big,” “Pleasantville,” and “Seabiscuit.”  He’s not the guy you think of for world-building science-fiction or big action.  Yet when we look back at these films in the future, one of the smartest choices they could have made was giving this first film to Ross, because he’s made something very special, concerned primarily with the human heart of the story instead of the spectacle.

The books by Collins are solid and interesting, and while they didn’t inspire the same rabid fandom in me that they appear to have inspired in some, I can understand the excitement.  Ultimately, “The Hunger Games” is a series about personal responsibility and finding one’s place in the world, and it is interested in more than just who’s going to kiss who.  Each of the books is built differently, which already makes it more interesting than many ongoing series.

Ultimately, though, questions of adaptation are unimportant. What matters is the experience viewers will have in the theater, and it is a thrilling, intelligent, deeply-felt movie that does not play by the typical rules of franchise building in modern Hollywood.  It seems appropriate that Lionsgate is releasing this instead of one of the major studios, because there’s an indie sensibility at work in the film that makes it feel surprisingly fresh.

The film begins in District 12 of Panem, a sprawling nation that suffered a major civil uprising that almost destroyed it.  As a reminder of what happened, Panem’s Capitol has ordered an annual event in which each of the 12 Districts of the country is forced to give up two Tributes, one boy and one girl under the age of 18, to be entered into The Hunger Games.  That’s a televised gladiatorial game in which only one person can survive, and the winner’s District is given a year of extra supplies and rations.  It is a form of population control where the annual symbolism serves as a warning:  don’t ever rise up against the Capitol again, or they will be crushed completely.

The way Ross etches life in District 12 at the beginning of the film feels authentic and lived-in.  There’s nothing glossy about the way he creates the world, and Philip Messina’s production design is consistently impressive over the course of the entire film, and Tom Stern’s photography of the film is intimate, driven almost entirely by a desire to create a subjective experience, one in which we are right there beside Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), going through this with her.  Katniss is from District 12, and her life has been hard, forcing her to grow up quickly.  Her father was killed in a mining accident, and her mother (Paula Malcomson) fell apart, leaving Katniss to essentially raise her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields).  She hunts illegally and sells her kills to buy more food for her family, and it’s obvious she has been hardened by the life she’s led.  One of the ways families can buy more rations during a year is putting your name into the Hunger Games drawing more than once, and by the time the film starts, both Katniss and her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) have their names in the drawing dozens of times, something Katniss reminds Prim about to help calm her down before the drawing.  It’s the first time Prim has been eligible, and she’s afraid of what might happen if she’s picked.

So, of course, Prim’s name is the one drawn when Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) rolls through District 12, and Katniss sets up and volunteers to take Prim’s place.  Then Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of a local baker, is also chosen, and Katniss and Peeta are whisked away from the Appalachian-style poverty of District 12 to the decadent Capitol, where people are caught up in empty concerns like fashion, where they’re all tuned in to the same disturbingly plastic talk shows, and where they seem to have no conception of how broken the rest of Panem truly is.  They’re assigned a mentor, one of the few District 12 Tributes to ever win the Hunger Games, and from the moment they meet him, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is a cynical drunk who doesn’t seem interested in their fate.

The film introduces a dense supporting cast, and there’s great work done by Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, Lenny Kravitz, and especially Donald Sutherland as President Snow, who seems to be one of the few people in the Capitol truly aware of the stakes in the Hunger Games each year, and just how crucial it is to keep the population discouraged and defeated.  By the time the film actually gets to the Games, it has already fully established the odds that are stacked against Katniss, and it’s also demonstrated just why Katniss might be the one thing they didn’t fully plan for.

Ross shoots the Capitol in a very different way than life in District 12, and then he shoots the Games with a different eye again.  By creating very different feels for each of the major stages where the film takes place, he creates a sense of movements in the film.  He deserves special recognition for the way he shoots the Games, because this is difficult material.  There are kids who are killed onscreen, and he never shies away from that, but he also never dwells on it.  I know many people have compared “The Hunger Games” to “Battle Royale,” but that film seems to relish the various kills, cranking up the gore for maximum effect.  Fukasaku couldn’t help himself, since he primarily worked in exploitation over the course of his career.  Ross went the other direction, directing the Games for impact, but refusing to be explicit.

The thing that finally pushes “The Hunger Games” over the top is the performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, and finally, here’s a pop culture phenomenon centered around a female character who I can fully endorse, who manages real strength without simply being a female version of a male character.  She is strong, she is capable, she is emotional, and she is human, and the script, adapted by Ross and Billy Ray, allows Katniss all of her rough edges, and Lawrence invests her with a rich inner life that makes her feel real.  It is a pure movie star performance, and Lawrence rises to the occasion.

I look forward to the rest of this series on film because this movie so effectively baits the hook, telling one complete story while also expertly laying the groundwork for everything that is still to come.  “The Hunger Games” is a triumph for all involved, proof that Lionsgate can play the blockbuster game, proof that Gary Ross can find the human heart of even the biggest film, and proof that Jennifer Lawrence is more than just Sundance hype.  When it opens next week, “The Hunger Games” is likely to be a major hit, and in this case, it deserves to be.

“The Hunger Games” opens March 23.