REVIEW: Jennifer Lawrence Hits Her Mark in Surprisingly Unflashy Hunger Games

Movieline Score:

Movie events have become deadly little things, highly mechanized gadgets thrown by studio marketing departments into an audience’s midst in advance; then we just stand around and wait for them to explode. The Hunger Games, adapted from the first of Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful trio of young adult novels, was decreed an event long before it became anything close to a movie: More than a year ago its studio, Lionsgate, launched a not-so-stealthy advertising campaign that made extensive use of social media to coax potential fans into convincing one another that they had to see this movie. The marketing was so nervily persuasive that you had to wonder: How could any movie – especially one that, as it turns out, is largely and surprisingly naturalistic, as opposed to the usual toppling tower of special effects – possibly hope to measure up?

The surprise of The Hunger Games isn’t that it lives up to its hype – it’s that it plays as if that hype never even existed, which may be the trickiest achievement a big movie can pull off these days. The picture takes place in a dystopian future, in a dictatorship called Panem that’s a thinly disguised version what used to be the United States. Panem’s richest and most privileged citizens live in the capitol city – called, conveniently, Capitol – while everyone else toils away in the 12 outlying districts to provide everything those Capitol dwellers might need, from food to coal to luxury goods. At some point in Panem’s history, the underlings in the districts revolted, French Revolution-style. As punishment, each district must now offer up two of its youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18, a boy and a girl chosen by lottery, to compete in a televised yearly event called the Hunger Games. The young people, called Tributes, kill one another off in an elaborately controlled stadium environment until there’s just one left standing: That kid earns accolades for his or her home district – and, more importantly, food.

As allegories go, this is a pretty obvious one, particularly in the era of the 99%, although neither Collins nor Gary Ross, director of the movie version, really needs to belabor the point: The focus, in the book and in the movie, is on the storytelling: If the larger ideas are pretty elephantine ones, at least they emerge from the story rather than obscure it with their meaty flanks. Jennifer Lawrence plays 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a denizen of the poorest section of Panem, District 12, which specializes in coal production – Katniss’ father, a miner, was killed in a mining accident, leaving the young woman to fend for the family by using her crackerjack archery skills to hunt game (illegally) in the nearby forest. When Katniss' impossibly young and extremely fragile sister Prim is chosen to compete in the Hunger Games – the announcements are made on a national holiday known, creepily, as Reaping Day – Katniss steps forward as a volunteer, desperate to take Prim’s place.

Her male counterpart is the baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, who played Laser, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s son in The Kids Are All Right), and the complication, as you might guess, is that he’s been sort-of-secretly in love with Katniss since childhood. Now the two will be life-and-death adversaries, and Katniss’ mistrust of Peeta’s motives – complicated by her own confused affections, given her exceedingly independent nature – provides the movie with some strong but delicate bone structure. The Hunger Games may offer some reasonably effective metaphorical statements about class divisions in this country -- and about the house-of-cards crassness of reality TV – but in the end, it works because of its deft handling of an even more universal theme: This is a movie about an independent-minded girl who just isn’t sure she can trust a boy, as true to the spirit of the Shirelles as it is to Greek myth.

There’s action here, too, and a great deal of vitality that feels true both to the spirit of Collins’ book and to the idea of movie entertainment as it exists – or ought to exist – outside the framework of mere movie marketing. Ross previously brought us the 1998 Pleasantville, as well as the disappointingly perfunctory 2003 Seabiscuit, and there are ways in which The Hunger Games (whose script he adapted, along with Collins and Billy Ray) feels workmanlike instead of genuinely inventive. For one thing, Ross overuses the handheld camera, particularly in scenes that are supposed to be intimate and deeply emotional: When Katniss gets Prim ready for her first Reaping Day, she tucks in the tail of the little girl’s shirt with the kind of efficient tenderness that the best big sisters have in their DNA. The family lives in what appears to be a simple wooden house, if not a shack. In the book, Collins notes that District 12 is located in what used to be called Appalachia, and if the movie doesn’t stress that outright, it at least implies as much: Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern channel the mood of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange with their muted -- though not blanched -- color palette and austere compositions. (James Newton Howard wrote the movie’s restrained score, and there’s additional music by roots-music craftsman T. Bone Burnett, which tells you something about the picture’s commitment to capturing the aura of this distinctly American landscape.) Ross’ instincts are so good that you wonder, particularly in the District 12 scenes, why he didn’t just screw the camera into the damned tripod: The stillness would have been classical and elegant and better suited to the emotional tone and texture of this part of the story.

Still, there’s so much in The Hunger Games that Ross gets right. He understands the nature of visual storytelling, trusting the audience to follow the narrative without spelling out every little thing in actual dialogue. He trusts us to pick up on telling details – for example, the lacy, little-girl anklets worn by the youngest Tribute, a sparkplug named Rue (played beautifully by a young actress named Amandla Stenberg), when she appears for her pre-competition televised interview. And The Hunger Games, mercifully, doesn’t suffer from overproductionitis. The picture, like the book it’s based on, has a number of fantastical elements – the glossy, gleaming futuristic edifices of the Capitol; a competition arena that resembles the natural world but can be controlled by technicians to create extra challenges for the participants, like rolling balls of fire and snarling creatures that are half-dog, half-lion. Even so, it relies mostly on a deceptively soothing kind of naturalism. These trees look like real trees; the sunlight certainly seems bright and strong. Their familiarity only adds to the story’s sense of menace, particularly when the going gets really ugly, as it inevitably does: At one point a crew of bloodthirsty Tributes surround a tree Katniss has climbed for safety, exhorting one of their members to “kill her.” The action in The Hunger Games is often a bit of a jumble – it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s coming from where. But Ross takes care to give the violence -- which is discreet but visceral -- the proper amount of weight. These are, after all, young people killing other young people. And one scene, in particular, conjures just the right level of Ophelia-floating-down-the-river grace -- the simplest wildflowers become a kind of benediction.

The picture makes room for a number of standout supporting actors: Stanley Tucci as an unctuous yet sympathetic games commentator; Elizabeth Banks as the fluttery, ineffectual official helper-outer Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta's boozy mentor; and Lenny Kravitz, sadly underused, as Cinna, who’s in charge of “styling” the District 12 entrants. (At one point in the pregame festivities, he puts Katniss in a dress whose fluttery, feathery skirt turns to fire as she twirls.) Wes Bentley has a turn as a smooth, unnerving semi-villain, and Donald Sutherland shows up as a malevolent elder statesman, a role he digs into with sly gusto.

But Lawrence holds the real key to the effectiveness of The Hunger Games, and she plays Katniss as the best kind of fallible heroine. Hutcherson may be teen-heartthrob material – in other words, wholly nonthreatening -- but he has the right amount of prickly sweetness to make the character of Peeta work: He can’t be too much of a sap, or you’d wonder what the hell Katniss sees in him. And as Lawrence plays her, Katniss – a sturdy girl, both physically and emotionally – deserves the best. There’s something primal about the way Katniss strides through the forest in the movie’s early scenes, stalking a deer with a rudimentary bow and arrow. She aims for the head and then, distracted by a District 12 pal (his name is Gale, and he’s played by Liam Hemsworth), misses. Lawrence has all the boldness and delicacy of her intended prey: Like that deer, she doesn’t miss a trick -- her senses are aquiver every moment. Her Katniss is both tender and fierce, a character with contours and shadows, not just a cutout-and-keep role model. When she succumbs at last to Peeta’s earnest charms, it’s as if she’s finally captured the most elusive of prey, if only temporarily: She’s at peace with herself, but her very restlessness is part and parcel of that peace. As Katniss, Lawrence never stops moving: Even in her stillness, she always hits her mark.

Read more on The Hunger Games here.

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  • Mary Ellen says:

    What a helpful review! Thank you Stephanie. I loved your focus on how the film handled little, telling details (e.g. the quintessential big sister moment when Katness tucks in Prim's shirt).

    I had a chance to browse through some of your other reviews and I really enjoyed the under-followed indie and foreign film reviews. I could not find a favorites list. Do you have one?

  • anonymous says:

    Panem is not just what used to be the United States! It is what is left of North America so perhaps it also includes parts of Canada and Mexico?!?

  • Max Renn says:

    I feel no hunger for this movie.

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    Katniss's district is shown as so drained of vitality, she, Gale and Peeta come across as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli did amongst the when they first entered the of-no-more-cheer-than-a-graveyard localities of the subjected Horse Lords. The result of this is that the Reaping looks like just as good an opportunity to actually save oneself as Gales' proposal that they flee into the forests does: the Opponent is becoming as weak and drained as their adult folk are. This is true for all the kids actually reaped -- excepting the ones killed off in the first ten minutes (and the munitions expert, who is essentially denied the existence Collins granted him), dull as dishwater excepting the frizzy-haired boy, who might in some alternate universe had a one-in-a-thousand chance to jump start into a Sideshow Bob. Gale is a stag; Katniss your alert, quick deer; and Peeta the one a sophisticate would assess as so multi-able his great flaw is that, owing to his mother's catastrophic disinterest in/denial of him, though he can with finesse handle hundred-pound bags, he can't quite lift himself up to letting himself fully know it. Rue is supposed to remind Katniss of Prim ... but this is crazy talk: she is further proof that the reaping took Katniss away from country' debilitation toward amongst "Princeton's" shining, wide-awake, vital elite. These type even know what it is to loosen themselves to impish play.

    The favored district is composed of non-blanched meanies, but upon watching the film I realize the experience of their involvement with Rue, Thresh, Peeta and Katniss, is kinda like a popular high school set figuring out exactly how best to deal with spark-possessing varietals that might one-day compose a contesting rival one: even while conniving how to dispose of them, pick them off, one by one, they're experimenting with and enabling the relocations that could let them ultimately acceptably fit them in as their own. This is a bit of stretch, I know, but it is still the close high school equivalent.

    It's the crowds that stand apart. It may be that in their united fealty to Katniss, District 12 figures in the imagination as pure, while the Capital as decomposed and grotesque, but I am pausing on this one. If so, however, this film does enable a certain class of people for ruthless, empathy-denied, full-scale elimination -- the Capitals' hyena-laughing, full-of-themselves, parasital scum; and for this then mostly should the film be explored for its take on fascism.

    But it may be that what we have here are two faces belonging to the same person: the one you carry as you suffer through life's ills -- stoic, resolute, proud in the face of the worst (the considerable prizes abominable levels of masochism enables); the other as you let yourself lapse into opiates of letting-go at weekend's crazed special events and carnivals.

  • jake says:

    The surprise of The Hunger Games isn’t that it lives up to its hype – it’s that it plays as if that hype never even existed, which may be the trickiest achievement a big movie can pull off these days.

    that makes zero sense.

    • Jake says:

      FYI, this Jake is not me. This is what I get for using my first name as my sign in.

      - Jakey

      PS. I really expected to like this movie, but couldn't. The bad cinematography, poorly constructed characters and terrible production design doomed it. It honestly was a struggle to watch. How convenient that Katniss never has to outright kill anyone to win. All the deaths are snap reflexes that kick in firing arrows in self defense. Consequently, I found the arrogant "bad boy" teen leading the group of evil teens to be far more interesting a character with his simple moment in the finale when he suggested that all the killing he did was not worth it. That moment of regret showed more depth than Katniss, Peeta, Rue (sp?) and all the other characters combined.

      • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

        Cato's final moment wasn't for me so much the character regretting as the film archly regrouping to argue the contest as simply an evil thing, rather than as glorious opportunity for come-uppance for the arrogant popular kids: denouement looking to involve wizened commentary on the sure fall of the arrogant. I believe, though, that Cato spent his lasts moments sniffling something Peetaish ... that Katniss was of course the one who was going to win. I prefered the book where he was kept such an arrogant, powerful brute (part indestructible, near-Katniss-immune, battle robot at this point, even, with his gifted puncture-immune suit), Katniss had to peer over to be sure he couldn't even have made his way through all the dogs (which were, btw, way too inflated in the film: Conan could have handled but one).

        I will cooperate and acknowledge there is a way in which Cato's sniffling seems in character, or at least in archtype: Hubris recognizing that Innocence and Virtue are in the end, what is armor-clad by God. His team did seem a bit as if versions of the fallen out of Paradise Lost or Pilgrim's Progress, or perhaps better, out of Greek myths, each ordained to fall as lessons for their impersonating / claiming glories of the gods: Glamored-up into grotesque; tall-as-a-tree by an arrow to the trunk; ruthless, furious movement and dexterity by simple, unabashed strength; Hercules-proud and strong by a pride of even stronger lion-dogs. It's enough there, I think, to make Katniss as Artemis discussions really at all worth our bringing up.

  • Jessica says:

    I just watched The Hunger Games at filmswoop dot com. It's free and in great quality. Check it out!

  • Glenn Hopp says:

    Stephanie taught me (in an email reply a few years ago when J.J. Abrams' STAR TREK came out) not to be too harsh on movies with this type of "intensified continuity" style or whatever it is called. It's the style of jittery, hand-held cameras, rapid cutting, and super close-ups. Thanks for suggesting I try out the Abrams movie. I'm glad I did. (The Bourne movies are also good examples of this style.)

    However, when I went to see HUNGER GAMES yesterday afternoon, I heard one person coming from some emptying auditorium saying, "I think I have motion sickness," and I wondered if they had come from seeing HUNGER GAMES. I agree with your comment about overusing the hand-held shots. I wanted the scene during training when she shoots the apple to be done over her shoulder in one wide unbroken shot--she pulls the arrow, aims, shoots, and pegs the apply off in the distance scattering the smug sponsors while we see it all happen in one unedited shot. But instead that sequence is sent through the cinematic shredder like almost all of the rest of the movie.

    Last point. Sorry to be so long. I watched the season five premiere of MAD MEN, and ten minutes in, I couldn't help but contrast the wide, deep, longer shots on this TV show with the chopped-up, rapid-fire, eyebrow-to-chin proxemics in so many movies now. Filmmakers often say they use an abundance of close-ups because so many people see their films on home video instead of theaters they have to for clarity. Has anybody pointed out to them that television directors don't really feel obliged to do that?

  • steele says:

    The Hunger Games is the best movie in the world! I would rate the movie 5 stars!

  • Jessica says:

    Such an awesome movie! FYI, I was able to watch the Hunger Games Catching Fire for free at