I’ve pretty must resigned myself to the fact that I won’t love the movie adaptations of the books I love. The Harry Potter movies are all very good movies, but none of them really floored me until the last one. My favorite book, Mystic River, was made into a solid movie by Clint Eastwood, but it couldn’t explore the same emotional depths as Dennis Lehane’s modern classic. And the Narnia movies started off strong (but ultimately not great) with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, then steadily turned into boring, trite fluff in the last two. The best adaptations of books that I love were the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Shining. And how can I expect anyone to match the greatness of those movies? So I don’t.
I’m still processing The Hunger Games after seeing it last night, but I think this may be the movie that’s done it. The books themselves will certainly go on to be classics; they are young adult fiction with brilliant plotting and an uncommonly astute psychological insight into what makes teenagers tick. Suzanne Collins fills her fully realized world with complicated and relatable characters, and if she sometimes falls into the trap of teenage-girl fiction (the Peeta-Gale-Katniss love triangle is played up a little too much), she makes up for it with her heartbreaking but daring conclusion. Collins’ dystopian vision is translated admirably to the screen by director Gary Ross, who has lucked into the best cast he could have possibly put together.
Both the first book (also titled The Hunger Games) and the movie tell the story of Katniss, a girl who lives in the poor District 12 in the country Panem (actually a future, war-torn America). She ends up participating in the tyrannical Capitol’s version of Roman gladiator games, with children aged 12-18 and not grown men. These games are televised for the whole country to watch, and the Capitol uses them to maintain its control over the twelve districts. Joining Katniss in the ring are 23 other kids, one of whom, Peeta, is also from her district.
Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss, from her looks to her attitude to her vulnerability. The movie lacks the books’ window into Katniss’s thoughts, but Lawrence is revelatory as she shows us the complicated feelings thrust upon Katniss by her predicament. Lawrence was nominated for an Oscar for her work in the great Winter’s Bone; she’s different here, but just as powerful. It helps that she’s surrounded by other great actors. The up-and-coming Josh Hutcherson is spot-on as the passionate Peeta, as are Stanley Tucci as TV announcer Caesar Flickerman (a wicked delight), Woody Harrelson as Katniss’s and Peeta’s mentor (drunk and disorderly, maybe, but Harrelson conveys his lighter side as well), Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane (arrogant and nuanced), Donald Sutherland (subtly frightening), and Lenny Kravitz (touchingly loving toward Katniss). I only wish we could have seen more of Liam Hemsworth as Gale, who seems to be a capable actor.
With a cast like this, it may seem as if all director Ross had to do was point his camera and shoot. But he does more than that, giving his Hunger Games a specific feel. Ross knows how to use the effect of a quiet scene, a scene that can explain everything it has to without any character uttering a word. There are many of those scenes in this movie, and the effect is suspenseful and exciting. While Ross employs a lot of different techniques to clue those who haven’t read the books into the complex plot, he uses them tastefully, even artfully. It would have been easy to fall into the trap of making the Games as entertaining as the Capitol intends them to be, but Ross makes the violence jarring and unheroic. We feel every death, and it reminds us of the adolescence being robbed from Katniss.
A great movie– the problem with adaptations is that they can never fully separate from the books they’re derived from. But Ross has created a movie that stays true to the book but conveys its themes in a work of art that is all his own. That’s what Peter Jackson did with Lord of the Rings, and he made the best fantasy series of all time. Let’s hope Ross can replicate his success the way Jackson did.