Film adaptations of books are funny things. Sometimes all you can see is what got left out, but sometimes seeing something you’ve read translated onto the screen can bring a great deal of extra emotional resonance. For instance, in “The Hunger Games” book, I can barely remember the moment when 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the annual games. It’s scary and sad, and then it’s over and the action moves on. This may say something about me as a reader.
Watching that scene play out on the big screen gives you the chance to witness 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen hear her name called and see the way people shrink away from her in a way that isn’t possible in a first-person narrator book. The tension and heartbreak in that scene pack an emotional punch that the rest of the movie never quite achieves again.
This is partly due to the necessity of moving the plot forward. The downside is that you don’t really get a strong sense of the other competitors, or Tributes, in the games. The moments when those kids die onscreen could be more powerful than they are. On the other hand, the movie would probably be about eight hours long if we got to know each contestant well enough to be emotionally rocked when they die.
About Katniss: Jennifer Lawrence is excellent. Her tough and capable Katniss is faithful to the spirit of the character, but with a welcome touch of confidence. Being tough and capable are not so useful in the moments where she has to try and charm the crowds of people watching her before the games start. She catches perfectly the nerves and hesitations of a small-town girl trying to navigate the complex social situations of the wealthy and powerful.
Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mallark, her co-Tribute, has much better luck. He knows what looks good. Moreover, he’s canny enough to exploit those sorts of things to improve his chances. The two are a contrast in looks as well as temperament. Hutcherson is, well, not tall, with delicate features and slicked-back blonde hair.
Lawrence has already received some criticism for being too healthy looking. In case you were keeping track, that means we are now criticizing young women both for being too skinny and too normal looking.
Their careful courtship, both as friends and potential lovers, provides a humanizing spark for Katniss and allows her to occasionally act like a teenager.
The costume designer obviously had a grand old time coming up with wigs and costumes for the rich and important people in the Capitol, the city where Katniss goes for the games. The look of these people is pretty faithful to the books, but it’s also the only aspect that really gives the movie a slightly goofy futuristic feel. You might be forgiven for thinking some of these people wandered over from the set of “The Fifth Element.”
There are also a few moments where the special effects were surprisingly low-budget looking. The scary dogs near the end were a trifle “Ghostbusters”-esque. I was a little worried Rick Moranis was going to spring out of one of them when it all ended. The crucial girl-on-fire moment that first sets Katniss up as a force to be reckoned with in the book was a little underwhelming.
Minor quibbles, really. This is a strong adaptation that trims and adds where it should. The adult actors, in particular Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta’s soused yet brilliant mentor, are excellent. Lawrence proves quite capable of bearing the load of a franchise film – frankly, she seems so competent that it’s hard not to pity those other kids in the games.