Many young-adult sci-fi/fantasy novels have reached the big screen over the past few years, with none of them ever seeming to catch fire. Whether it was the beautiful but severely uneven The Golden Compass, or the mild hit that was The Spiderwick Chronicles, so many book series have tried to launch franchises and failed. And as much as it pains me to say that The Golden Compass didn't deserve the franchise launch it was aiming for (if only a more gifted director had been at the helm...*sigh*), it does give me pleasure to say that The Hunger Games, Gary Ross' adaptation of Suzanne Collins' mega-hit YA novel, has the right stuff to (as well as solid enough film making) to launch the franchise that its studio clearly has in mind.
For those who haven't read the book, Collins' novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic future of sorts. We don't know many specifics, simply that at some point 12 districts of what was once the United States rebelled against the government. As punishment, the districts annually offer up one boy and one girl - between 12 and 18 - to compete in a savage survival competition known as The Hunger Games, where there can only be one victor. As the story proper begins, it's time for the 74th Hunger Games, where a young woman named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and young man named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are chosen as the tributes from District 12.
And part of what makes The Hunger Games successful is merely Katniss herself. Ross' direction is competent, haunting in spots, but it's his leading lady who must carry the 2 hr 22 minute film, and she most certainly does. She's not surrounded by stylization like recent tough-as-nails young heroines like Kick Ass's Hit Girl or Hanna's titular protagonist, but Katniss still makes her mark, albeit in a more grounded manner. Though there are a few vacant spots in the performance, Lawrence makes a compelling big-budget action film debut, proving she has the skills to be both tough and sympathetic.
This is critical, because even though Ross does any number of things right as director and co-screenwriter, there are also nagging flaws that chip away at the film's armor. I don't quite agree with critics who claim that the film's PG-13 rating has left it sanitized; there's plenty of disturbing content when it comes to teenagers being forced to savagely kill each other without being grotesque or excessive. Where the film makes some missteps is probably more tied to the source material itself, which offers a slightly convenient solution to its otherwise grim story. Granted, the ending of the titular games is thematically appropriate in a sense, given how it uses the story to show the absolute extreme of reality programming and dehumanizing spectacle. At the same time, it feels like an all-too convenient ending to a story that could strengthen itself with a much more dour ending. The film does a wonderful job of setting up the stakes and emotional conflicts that come with the Games in the first hour, but the on-screen exploits are so focused on Katniss (and, to an extent, Peeta), that when it comes to making us feel for other characters, the impact isn't quite what it could be.
On the flip side of the coin, when the film clicks, it really hits home. Some shots of the Capitol, where the rich and privileged reside, are a tad too VFX-laden, yet for the most part they ring true, and avoid feeling like generic upper-class dystopia. The first hour effectively establishes the political side of the games, as the various tributes fight to make an impression and earn favor from the masses watching. And, in the earliest moments of the Games, the violence is appropriately horrifying, without coming off as sensationalized or exploitative. The narrative sags as the Games drag on for over an hour of screen time, however, and the use of an overly shaky camera hinders the power of some of the major confrontations. There's also a surprising amount of grainy footage that throws off the generally sharp and clean look of the images.
So, for all of the strengths on display, The Hunger Games still comes across as an effective, though certainly not revelatory, take on a dehumanizing dystopia. It can feel lightweight when it should really hit home, and moments of cheesiness in the final half hour undermine the narrative's credibility from the earlier portions. Thankfully, Lawrence and the rest of the cast are all compelling on screen, even though few characters get more dimensions since the story completely belongs to Katniss. What's still missing from The Hunger Games' world is a sense of something truly special. The rules of the Games add a unique element to the story, but ultimately it's just a variation on the dystopia genre that doesn't stand out as much as its rabid fanbase would indicate. Harry Potter may have ultimately been a series of boarding school novels set in a hidden, magical world, but J.K. Rowling's details added levels of depth that the novels (and, to varying extents, the films) felt like they really stood in a realm of their own. The Hunger Games may not have wizards or enchantments, but when compared to something like Potter, the missing ingredient becomes obvious in regards to this overall solid piece of work: there's almost no magic to any of it.