Harrowing "Hunger Games" shouldn't leave fans and uninitiated hungry

The Hunger Games (2012)
142 min., rated PG-13.
A bid to be the next big—make that gargantuan—film franchise adapted from a popular book series, "The Hunger Games" is less obvious about who its target audience is than like, say, "Twilight." Though the 2008 popular trilogy by Suzanne Collins is most likely aimed at its ravenous YA readers, there's an accessibility to the film. It's visceral, emotionally unflinching, and honestly violent without being overly brutal or savaged, as its premise might suggest to the uninitiated. Yes, death is treated as a game and young people are killing other young people. Director Gary Ross, whose solid track record includes 1998's lightly subversive sitcom satire "Pleasantville" and 2003's satisfying crowd-pleaser "Seabiscuit," wouldn't seem like the most obvious choice to reign this material. But, as a version of the oft-uttered line goes, the odds are ever in his favor.

Once again, after her Oscar-nominated role in 2010's intensely bleak "Winter's Bone," Jennifer Lawrence is living off of squirrel meat and head of the household, this time playing fatherless 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. Adept with a bow and arrow, she hunts for food while living in the starving-poor District 12, one of eleven other districts in the nation of Panem (what's left of North America), where she's lucky if she can even get a loaf of bread. Each year, as a punishment for a rebellion against the wealthy, dictating fortress known as The Capitol, 24 kidsone boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each districtare selected by lottery to participate in the Hunger Games. The event is a to-the-death fight televised for everyone to see. On the day of the Reaping, where the District 12 tributes are chosen for the 74th year, announcer and escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) picks out the name of Primrose (Willow Shields), Katniss' 12-year-old sister. Immediately, Katniss steps up and volunteers to take her place as the tribute. Also chosen is the baker's son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and together they are whisked away on a superfast train to the colorfully futuristic Capitol. There, they train with other tributes before they attack each other. Only one will walk away victorious, while 23 of them aren't so lucky.
Director Ross, working from a script he co-wrote with author Collins and Billy Ray, have their work cut out for them. They take on the challenge to remain faithful for its pre-sold fan base and fill in the gaps for those coming in cold (like yours truly) to this cinematic translation. With two and a half hours' worth of story to tell, the film never feels long, breathlessly moving along with a forward momentum. When it comes to all the relatively dense exposition and plot, the ins and outs of this dystopian future are established well enough through an opening title graphic and the pre-Games scenes. As for the rules and inner workings of the blood sport, they are quite simple (the sound of a canon signals a tribute's death, and tributes can have sponsors send them parachutes of water, food, medicine, etc.). At its core, this is a commentary of blood sport becoming a national form of entertainment (not far removed from "Death Race 2000" or "The Running Man") with the allegorical subtext of a Have and Have-Nots tale. Many have compared the premise to "Battle Royale," a Japanese thriller also based on a book, and the source material itself was criticized for its coincidental similiarities. But the strength of "The Hunger Games" lies in its protagonist of Katniss and her selfless motivations.

There's little suspense in who will come out on top since Katniss obviously has to live out two more installments, but that doesn't lessen the tension in how she'll do it. From the time a nervous Katniss stands inside a tube and surfaces to the woodsy "arena" with her 23 other opponents, we're tense and completely invested in seeing our female warrior coming out a survivor. From there, an alliance is formed, and Games master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) can manipulate the sun and create fire or beasty dogs from the control room to add more danger. The stakes are kept high, as Katniss hides out in trees and in one instance encounters a hive of genetically enhanced wasps called Tracker Jackers, which can sting you to hallucinatory spells or even death. With the violence on display here, the film never coddles its audience nor does it rub our faces in the bloodshed. It's inherent to the story and just bloody enough. Restricted with a PG-13 rating, the filmmakers might've found less compromise with the emotional stakes if the deaths of tributes had been more graphically depicted. That's not to say the film needed gore, but the action is somewhat censored by some blurry, frantic camera work and quick edits. Long takes and wide framing of shots are rarely found. Nevertheless, we never lose involvement, and the action is intense and exciting.

Lawrence is simply commanding in the role of Katniss. She has a fierce screen presence and gravitas that perfectly captures the character's iron-willed bravery and resourcefulness. She's a survivor, but not completely undaunted when she has to kill others unless it's in self-defense. And for a fan-fiction heroine, Katniss is a strong female gladiator for the feminist persuasion, unlike "Twilight's" comparatively spineless Bella Swan. Hutcherson is fine with his low-key charisma useful for the character of Peeta. He's morally upright but tries to play up the PR aspect, holding hands with Katniss and confessing his crush on her so the audience will eat it up and remember them. As Gale, Liam Hemsworth is just a hunk on the sidelines. Early on, the close but platonic bond between Gale and Katniss is nicely portrayed. Taking into account all the sold-out midnight showings that point to the movie being a box-office hopeful, there will surely be more of Hemsworth's Gale as a romantic rival to Peeta in the second and third editions.

The film is also dotted with a few game, flamboyant supporting turns. Banks, powdered and bewigged like she hopped off the Marie Antoinette parade, brings an amusing egocentricity, theatricality, and wit to Effie, the District 12 escort. Stanley Tucci, in a blue pompadour, is also dynamite as TV host Caesar Flickerman with enough game-show host energy and charm. Donald Sutherland and Bentley mostly have to act wily, respectively, playing the tyrannical President Snow and Seneca. But Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz are the more interesting standouts as Katniss and Peeta's drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy and Katniss' compassionate stylist Cinna, shaping their characters with empathy. Making the only impression as one of the killing-machine tributes is Isabelle Fuhrman; go figure that her character is skilled with a knife after her insidious turn in "Orphan." Also, Amandla Stenberg is wonderful as Rue, a quiet tribute that befriends Katniss; her scenes with Lawrence are deeply felt with a powerful send-off.

Larry Dias' set decoration and the costume design by Judianna Makovsky sharply range from the grey concentration camp look of District 12 to the campy, retro-futuristic/Kabuki decor of The Capitol (where everyone is gaudy, privileged, and shallow). Equally terrific are Tom Stern's gleaming cinematography and the plaintive music score by James Newton Howard and T-Bone Burnett. Harrowing and compelling, "The Hunger Games" should resonate for anyone with a pulse. For those that didn't get caught in the buzz of Ms. Collins' books, the film version might force some to play catch-up, and fans that devoured the books cover to cover won't leave hungry. Well, it will leave them hungry for more Katniss. The finish isn't really a cliffhanger, but satisfyingly lays the groundwork for "Catching Fire." After "Harry Potter" and "Twilight," let the games begin for another promising pop franchise on Hollywood's hands.

Grade: A -