In the film Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree hunts and skins a squirrel alive, hoping to feed her malnourished brothers and sisters. The traditional selfish desires of a teenager are no match for her undying desire to keep her kin safe. In The Hunger Games, Lawrence’s character, the much beloved heroine of Suzanne Collins’ novels, Katniss Everdeen, faces an eerily similar struggle, but with even more fearless aplomb.
Like Ree, Katniss is a Destiny’s Child-approved leading lady—she’s an independent young woman and a survivor. She’ll do anything to keep herself, her sister, Prim (Willow Shields) and her mother alive, including illegally snaring and sautéing forest critters and fighting to the death against 23 other teenagers (a.k.a. tributes) as a part of the Hunger Games—an annual, publicly broadcasted event hosted by her corrupt government and its unusually cruel regulation system.
As many other critics have pointed out to near-obnoxiousness, we’ve already seen kids hack at each other on screen in Battle Royale. But there’s a reason why the hit YA book series that inspired this film has such a rabid, age-defying following. This particular treatment of the concept, with its endearing, strong-willed and anti-Bella Swan lead, ironically colourful and allegorical backdrop and spots of purposefully unresolved, unrequited romanticism (Team Peeta? Team Gale? More like Team Katniss!), aims for and hits an emotional bullseye.
Garry Ross manages to recapture the intently moving and philosophically challenging quality of original text and its characters…for the most part. The script, partially penned by Collins, stays fairly true to form, although a few fiddles could prove harmful later in the series. (Katniss’ mockingjay pin—a huge symbol, especially in the third novel, Mockingjay—is hardly explored). The sets are simply spot-on, especially the forested arena. The costumes are spectacular, albeit occasionally overshadowed by poor CGI. The soundtrack is a fine-tuned folksy fancy (T. Swift, The Civil Wars, Once’s Glen Hansard), but is poorly underused (just the credits—really?) And, of course, the casting is exceptional.
Many of the main actors are worth mentioning—Lenny Kravitz wears Cinna’s gold eyeliner with quiet pride, Woody Harrelson is Katniss’ boozy mentor Haymitch, and Josh Hutcherson bakes extra charm into his Peeta, Katniss’ competitor and doomed suitor. But the winner here is, suitably, Lawrence. She takes to Katniss and her weathered braid as Katniss does to a bow and arrow—with precision and well-earned ease. Katniss’ inner narration is absent and Lawrence embraces the silence, letting her eyes and mannerisms tell us what we need to know.
You could say The Hunger Games is Lawrence’s Hunger Games. That her short-yet-sweet film career (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class) has just been training for playing this rebel with a heart and a pin of gold. For her true breakthrough—the performance we’ll remember and salute with three fingers and a kiss to the sky. B+
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson. Directed by Gary Ross. 142 minutes. PG