March 29, 2012

'Hunger Games' offers universal appeal


---- — The legions of fans for Suzanne Collins's "The Hunger Games" novels can now rest easy. The movie adaptations are in good hands.

"The Hunger Games" film makes a few compromises, but it is emotional and action-packed and true to the source material — and Jennifer Lawrence does not disappoint as the iconic young heroine, Katniss Everdeen.

For the uninitiated, "The Hunger Games" is set in a dystopian version of the future. The nation of Panem has been built on the war-ravaged remains of North America, with one decadent capital region surrounded by the 12 starving, working-class districts.

As punishment for long-ago transgressions, each district is forced to surrender two children — one boy and one girl — to the Hunger Games, a vicious battle-to-the-death, which is televised and glorified throughout the nation.

Katniss comes from District 12, a coal-mining region that bears a striking resemblance to the poor Ozark land inhabited by Lawrence's character in her Oscar-nominated breakout role in 2010's "Winter's Bone."

When her helpless younger sister is selected for the Games, Katniss bravely volunteers and is thrust into the violent countryside of the arena with 22 foes and the district's other "tribute" — Peeta Malark, the smitten son of a baker.

Lawrence gives a strong and textured performance as the capable but conflicted teen with a talent for archery and survival. Katniss is determined but often conflicted and uncertain, and Lawrence is able to convey an array of emotions without uttering a word.

Josh Hutcherson ("The Kids are All Right") is solid and likable as Peeta, though his character comes across more as a generic nice guy. Hutcherson's Peeta doesn't have the same layers of complexity as the book's version, though there's still room for that to develop in the two remaining movies.

The two young stars are surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Woody Harrelson is understated but effective as drunken mentor Haymitch. Stanley Tucci is spot-on as the popular host Caesar Flickerman. An unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks plays Effie, the public relations handler, while Lenny Kravitz is a sympathetic stylist who helps Katniss earn the attention of the masses. Donald Sutherland is suitably sinister as the scheming president.

Liam Hemsworth (younger brother of "Thor," Chris Hemsworth) plays Katniss's best friend and potential love interest Gale, but he has such little screen time that not much of the love triangle that fans have obsessed over makes it to the big screen.

Directed by Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit"), "The Hunger Games" is an event movie that has almost universal appeal. It has romance, teen angst, a strong female role model, moments of brutal violence, political intrigue and wisps of science fiction.

My only quibbles with the film are minor. It doesn't delve as much into the emotions of the protagonists as the book does, in particular the bond between Katniss and pint-sized contestant Rue. Also, Peeta is physically smaller (Hutcherson is 5-foot-7) than imagined.

"The Hunger Games" could have been even better, but it still leaves the viewer anxious to see the sequel.

Rental Recommendation: For cheesy/bloody game-show fun, how about Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Running Man"? Grade: B

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