“The Hunger Games” has appeal, but it’s no “Harry Potter”

In a dystopian future where the government keeps a tight rein on the populace, the annual reminder of a failed uprising is The Hunger Games, a televised battle to the death of teens from each of the twelve districts. When her young sister Prim (Willow Shields) is selected as the female tribute from District Twelve, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers for combat instead, getting paired up with local baker’s son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). 

They’re sent to the decadent Capital district in preparation for the Games and after much pagentry and minimal training in combat and survival tactics, the heart of the intense, if somewhat confusing, teen thriller The Hunger Games begins with Katniss and Peeta joined by 22 other tributes from the twelve districts. 

Being a teen romance, however, there’s got to be a third person in the triangle, and that’s Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who has been a childhood friend to Katniss and is realizing that he loves her. He’s stuck back in District Twelve and has to watch her blossoming relationship with Peeta during televised game coverage. Is her romance with Peeta real or just a ploy to gain fans and sponsors during the games?

Thrilling in parts, The Hunger Games is a faithful adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name, and that’s both its greatest strength and weakness: if you’ve read the book, you’ll understand the story and motivation of the different characters and quite enjoy how brilliantly even complicated scenes from the book are realized on screen. If you haven’t read the book, expect to be confused by the story and what motivates the different characters. It’s also sappy and cliché at points, but when the film ends with an obvious sequel in mind, you’ll find yourself looking forward to Catching Fire, the second book in the series, sure to be filmed after the inevitable success of this first movie in The Hunger Games trilogy.

The book is characterized by a retinue of colorful supporting characters who help Katniss during the Games, each of whom is also wrestling with their hatred of the totalitarian regime that forces each district to sacrifice its children, year after year. Unfortunately, little of that translates to the screen, and interesting characters like President Snow (a completely wasted Donald Sutherland) and head stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) come across as one-dimensional at best. Even the bitter, alcoholic Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) becomes far more sympathetic on screen, undermining how badly damaged he is in the original story.

Katniss has grown up quickly in District Twelve after her father died in a mining accident and her mother (Paula Malcomson) had a mental breakdown, leaving her to look out for the family and raise Prim.

There are stark differences between the poor miners in District Twelve and the wealthy residents of the Capital, conveyed through exteriors that offer a futuristic medieval architecture reminiscent of the cities in Game of Thrones. The technology in the film was also quite credible, including a maglev train that hummed quietly along at 200mph and a window that at the touch of a curved remote turned into an HD screen allowing Katniss to explore different areas of the Capital and, ultimately view a forest that might well be the one she had illegally hunted in back in her home district.

The pivotal scene in the film happens prior to the Games beginning, when Katniss encounters Peeta sitting on the patio of their apartment, unable to sleep. She sits down and he explains to her that he doesn’t care that he’s most likely going to die, he just wants to “die as myself. I don’t want them to change me in there, turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.” That was an all too rare scene of introspection in a film that otherwise races from scene to scene at breakneck speed.

Once the Games begin, the film becomes a sort of high-tech Lord of the Flies, and within moments, half the 24 children are killed by the others: Since the only way to win is to be the last person left alive, the tributes take that to heart in a rather bloodthirsty manner. Least aggressive of all is young Rue (Amanda Stenberg), whom Katniss takes under her wing, obviously reminding her of Prim, though otherwise the combatants go by in a confusing blur.

Even with the violent deaths (including one neck broken, one wild animal mauling and many knives and swords being used) there was surprisingly little blood and not a single obscenity, even when most appropriate. The PG-13 rating is justified as it’s quite tense in scenes, but it is indeed appropriate for older teens or those used to action or adventure films.