A few assurances for anxious Hunger Games book fans: Actress Jennifer Lawrence doesn't ruin bow-wielding heroine Katniss. Death still comes by genetically engineered dog, spear and swarm of hallucination-inducing bees. There is no way in hell anybody will mistake your beloved young adult "girl battles dystopian regime" series for Twilight.
In fact, director Gary Ross' movie version of The Hunger Games is more than a big-screen cash grab. It's a tense drama with bursts of raw emotion and unsettling (if mostly unseen) violence. In other words: it's a good movie all by itself. In an era where YA books are often boiled down beyond recognition for film treatment, The Hunger Games is a vivid KO that stays mostly true to great source material.
Suzanne Collins' enormously successful sci-fi-ish series is as complex and political as a trio of books for teen girls can get. Every year, the government of post-disaster America (now known as Panem) holds the Hunger Games, a competition that plucks two kids from each of the nation's 13* districts and forces them to fight in a televised death match, complete with American Idol-style pre-game interviews and costumed pageantry to rival the Olympic opening ceremonies. It's entertainment for the rich asshats in the Capitol and a punishment for the other, poorer 11 colonies, which attempted to rebel against the government years ago, and lost. It's like The Running Man…but with high-schoolers killing each other with bricks and swords in the woods.
Enter Katniss Everdeen, a stone-faced 16-year-old from a starving coal mining town who actually volunteers to be one of the bloodbath's "tributes" in order to save her little sister from competing. Her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is a charming baker's son with few survival skills besides cake decorating. Romance—real or manufactured for TV—and flesh wounds ensue.
A big reason the books are a success is the prickly heroine, who is a tinder box of pride, tongue-tied confusion and fierce warmth—she's more adept at shooting squirrels for her family's dinner than pimping herself on national TV. "To win the game, you have to make people like you," her mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson in surly drunk mode), explains. She's not good at that.
The plum part of Katniss went to little-known Lawrence, who, after getting beaten half to death by a pack of Ozarks meth wives in 2010's Winter's Bone, I'd argue has been training for the part for years. Although fans will bitch that she is too pretty and curvy for the book's plain-faced, malnourished lead, Lawrence nails it—seesawing between determination and terror as she shimmies up trees and fends off psychotic teens and Stanley Tucci.
The camera itself often acts as Katniss' inner monologue, the unfocused lens shakily darting from eyes to lips and doors; as if it's recovering from a blow to the head. The tense, quiet style works. So does the film's understated soundtrack: At one point, birdsong and straining breath is all that backs the brutal sight of 24 kids trying to slaughter each other for a backpack and a machete.
Although the film hinges on Katniss, Games' secret weapon is its costume and makeup team. Taking a cue from to the book's use of fashion as shorthand for greed and social decay, the film doesn't waste time explaining Panem's economic schisms. A glance at District 12's ragged calico frocks and the Capitol nincompoops' lollipop-hued coifs and elaborately carved facial hair says it all. Never before has the color hot pink been used to convey such epic douchebaggery. Government stooge Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is the crew's masterpiece: a stomach-turning confection of fluttering pink Venus' flytrap eyelashes and gold geisha lips topped off by a Marie Antoinette wig.
"May the odds be ever in your favor," she happily chirps to a crowd of stricken teens watching as their schoolmates are led off to their deaths. With this strong movie adaptation, sequels are the one sure outcome of this year's Hunger Games. May they all be as good.
SEE IT: The Hunger Games is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, CineMagic, Cinetopia, Cornelius, Lake Twin, Moreland, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Bridgeport, City Center, Division, Evergreen, Hilltop, Lloyd Mall, Movies on TV, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Roseway, Sandy and St. Johns Twin.