“The Hunger Games” A Cinematic Feast

Oftentimes films that receive a lot of hype don’t live up to the high expectations the movie moguls and audiences have for them. The most recent example is Walt Disney Studios’ “John Carter,” which cost a whopping $250 million to make. Thus far the film has earned only a little more than $5 million, and Disney officials expect it to lose in excess of $200 million. If this prediction is accurate, “John Carter” will earn the dubious distinction of being the biggest box-office loser the history of cinema.

Conversely, a film that definitely has delivered at both the box office and on the big screen is “The Hunger Games,” a satisfyingly faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ riveting futuristic novel of the same name. This remarkable movie is far and away the best picture of the young film season, and even though the next Academy Awards are almost a year away, it has my vote in at least the best picture, best director, and best actress categories.

Set at an unnamed point in the future “The Hunger Games” takes place in the wasteland of what used to be North America, now known as Panem, which is divided into 12 districts and the Capitol, where the dictatorial president resides.

As the film begins, we learn where gets its title from the words of the Treaty of the Treason: “In penance for their uprising, each district shall offer up a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 at public ‘Reaping.’ These Tributes shall be delivered to the custody of the Capitol and then transferred to a public arena where they will Fight to the Death until a lone victor remains. Henceforth and forevermore the pageant shall be known as The Hunger Games.” And it is mandatory that every citizen of Panem watches the games from beginning to end on television.

The poorest area in Panem is District 12, where 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with her widowed mother (Paula Malcomson) and 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). The industry in District 12 is coal mining, and the girls’ father died in a mine explosion.

By law both Katniss and Prim must report to the Reaping, and both of them are stunned when the first name drawn is Prim’s. As the young girl hesitantly makes her way forward, Katniss bolts from the crowd and volunteers to take her sister’s place. This is a perfectly legal thing to do, and, thus, Katniss becomes the female Tribute from her district. Her male counterpart is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a boy who befriended Katniss several years ago.

All the Tributes are transported to the Capitol, where they are wined and dined for several days before the competition begins. They all have a personal escort, a stylist, a mentor, and a support team. After a parade, pageantry, and interviews befitting an Olympic Games, they are then set lose in the arena to fend for themselves in a brutal battle for survival.

From the acting to the cinematography to the incredible stunt work and special effects, “The Hunger Games” is a consistently exciting and entertaining film rife with action, suspense, and romance. It reminded me a of an amalgamation of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” George Orwell’s “1984,” William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies,” and the film titled “The Truman Show.” If you are familiar with these works, you find elements of all them inherent in this outstanding movie.

Every so often in literature or in films a fictional character comes along (other than a superhero) who is so exceptional and so strong that he or she immediately becomes an instant hero or heroine. A prime example is Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) from the “Kill Bill” films or Jack Bauer from the “24” television series or Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) from the Jason Bourne movies. Now we can add Katniss Everdeen to that list.

Because she has spent so much time hunting in the wilderness with her bow and arrow, Katniss has a good chance of survival during the games. She’s also in terrific physical condition, and she’s highly intelligent. In the film’s production notes, director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) offered this insight into her character.

“Katniss is a fierce, independent survivor. She’s a hunter, an archer and an athlete, and as the story begins, she already has amazing skills she’s developed to protect and fend for her family. Most importantly, she’s someone who comes to know her own truth. One thing Suzanne and I talked about is that she is a bit like Joan of Arc — someone who can’t abide tyrants, which ultimately gives her the courage to defy the Capitol.”

Lawrence’s incredible skills as an actress belie her youth at just 21. Two years ago she earned an Academy Award nomination for her marvelous portrayal of an Ozark Mountain girl in “Winter’s Bone,” and she turns in another Oscar-worthy performance here. The role of Katniss was a terribly physically demanding one, and Lawrence not only did many of her own stunts, but she also managed to imbue Katniss with an appealing vulnerability at just the right times. She has the rare ability to communicate her thoughts and feelings without saying a word, and there is never one moment in the movie when we don’t know exactly what is on her mind. In the production notes, Lawrence explained what drew her to the part of Katniss.

“Her strength. I’m always drawn to strong characters, because I want to be like that. This is a girl who has the whole world placed on her shoulders, and she becomes a kind of futuristic Joan of Arc. I just knew that I had so much respect for the books and who she is that there was nothing I wouldn’t do to bring that out in the right way. I also loved that Gary understood that this movie is not about Katniss looking cool with a bow-and-arrow — it’s about her being heartbroken by all that she has to do.

“There’s a lot of pressure when you’re playing a character so many people are crazy about, but I felt I could rest easy because I was committed to do the very best that I could. I knew we had a group of talented people focused on making the best possible movie and that’s what I believed in.”

From beginning to end, there is no doubt who is the unmitigated star of this film because Lawrence appears in practically every frame of it, and she carries the movie with poise, grace, and appeal of a seasoned veteran. Her talent is truly amazing.

Joining Lawrence in making this film so effective is a remarkable supporting cast that includes the following: Woody Harrelson as the mentor for Katniss and Peeta; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Tinket,  Katniss’ escort and PR representative; Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the personal stylist for Katniss;  Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’faithful hunting partner; Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the flamboyant emcee for the games; Amanda Stenberg as Rue the youngest participant in the games who forges an unlikely friendship with Katniss; and Donald Sutherland as President Coriolanus Snow, the ruthless dictator of Panem.

In addition to everything else the film has going for it, “The Hunger Games” (It gets that elusive score of 10.) is rated PG-13 because its makers skillfully imply much of the innate violence in the story without resorting to tasteless gore.

Whether viewers consider the movie an action/adventure story, a drama critical of a futuristic government, or just an unusual love story, it definitely is a film not to be missed. And the good news is that “The Hunger Games” is just the first novel of a trilogy written by Collins. Surely the other two stories are a lock to make it to the silver screen. I’m already whetting my appetite for them.

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