Superfans be easy. If your barometer for measuring the success of Hollywood's Hunger Games adaptation begins and ends with faithfulness to the source material, by all accounts it is one. If you can swing a bit of emotional transference, all the better — I suspect few who enter without a preexisting love for Katniss and Peeta will be moved by their exploits. This $78 million companion piece to Suzanne Collins' young adult novel isn't especially concerned with converting the uninitiated; it's about cashing in on a fertile franchise. Cha-ching!
For the rest of you: Katniss Everdeen is a girl from District 12. In the future, America is divided into 12 districts under a totalitarian government. Once a year, at a grim lottery known as a "reaping," two adolescents' names are drawn to represent each district in a televised battle to the death known as The Hunger Games. Katniss, 16, has survived several reapings, but when her younger sister's name is called, she volunteers to fight in her stead.
Directed by 55-year-old Gary Ross, The Hunger Games isn't exactly brimming with angst and youthful energy. His craftsmanship is competent, but Ross puts too much pressure on the talent to sell Collins' world and contributes too little himself. Where's the scale? The novel pops with aesthetic opportunity, but Ross isn't visionary enough to really capture our imagination. District 12 is a destitute mining community that counts starvation and black lung among the leading causes of death. Show us that. By skimping on act one atmosphere, the director undermines the comparative splendor of the bizarre and extravagant capitol city.
Ross routinely sabotages the emotional potential of Collins' story and setting. The reaping in particular lacks narrative punch. Ross adequately animates the flesh of the scene, but as a storyteller he fails to find the soul. On paper, a family is splintered and an act of defiant bravery instigates a Herculean trial. Ross puts the impetus on the audience to feel the weight of that choice — artistically, he renders the scene with all the gravitas of mild indigestion.
And the cast — talented though its constituents may be — often feels curiously misplaced. Kudos to Ross for casting an anti A-lister like Jennifer Lawrence as his lead, but he negates any goodwill with clunky misallocations of more famous folk. Woody Harrelson sticks out like a sore thumb as drunkard slash mentor (in that order) Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson's half-hearted take on the character plays like a spacey stoner from a bad SNL sketch. Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz are also underwhelming as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman and stylist Cinna, respectively.
It feels like an eternity before the games actually get underway, and it quickly becomes apparent (this is a criticism consistent with the novel) that any illusion of challenging the preconceptions of preteen storytelling disintegrates. Granted, there's a bloody death or two, but mostly Katniss gets by with clever alternatives to direct combat — there's something distinctly Home Alone-ian about watching her drop a hornets' nest onto her would-be assassins. For Ross' part, he frames the action just inelegantly enough to obscure any offensive violence.
Ultimately, what works about Hollywood's Hunger Games adaptation are the traits intrinsic to the novel. A worthy premise lends a compelling backdrop to a young adult coming-of-age sci-fi romance whatchamacallit — and Ross borrows those ideas wholesale. It's all there. His is a relatively faithful transcription of the source material, and it's a shame he does so little to distinguish his version. He fails to replicate the emotional oomph of Collins' imperfect novel, and expands upon those imperfections with lazy visuals and uneven pacing. After all, when financial success is a certainty, there's little incentive for a director to think outside the box.
Naturally, my complaints will carry little weight with the Hunger Games superfans, for whom this film was expensively and exclusively realized. If you count yourself among that elite group — read no further. This is your film. Enjoy it.