The much-repeated motto for teen gladiators of "The Hunger Games" is "May the odds be ever in your favor." The odds of making a good film of the property were daunting. How can you balance the demands of a violent science fiction opus, a story of star-crossed young love, and a dark portrait of class warfare and dystopian decadence? Above all, how do you cope with the ardent expectations of 23 million readers who turned Suzanne Collins' books into a global pop cult phenomenon?
Happily, the film should meet most high hopes and exceed the rest. "The Hunger Games" is a furiously compelling metaphor for adolescent angst, where the competition for friendship and love unfolds in an arena where kids kill each other. In a disturbing near-future, this televised blood sport is a tool used by the rich totalitarians of the Capitol to control their once-rebellious states.
Katniss Everdeen, a bow hunter from impoverished District 12, enters the game with poor prospects but outfights and outwits her adversaries and the adults controlling the game.
Each step of the way, the film is deeply involving. A onetime TV writer, Collins (who co-wrote the script) knows how to drive a story and design a cliffhanger. The chase and combat sequences that make up half the film are propulsively paced and jarring. That excitement is necessary, but on its own it's not enough to make a satisfying adventure.
What elevates the film from commonplace is the way it makes its characters rich archetypes rather than perfunctory stereotypes.
As Katniss, the extravagantly talented Jennifer Lawrence renders her character with surgical precision. Her defiance against the Hunger Games' overlords is instinctual. Her stoic composure in the face of danger doesn't come so naturally; when it slips we see the vulnerable girl clearly.
Lawrence delivers an absolutely assured performance but she's hardly the whole show. As her fellow competitor Peeta, Josh Hutcherson moves persuasively along an arc that begins in conflicted feelings and deepens to friendship, loyalty and love. Donald Sutherland is subtle and sinister as President Snow, who explains the emotional power of the survival spectacle, a drama that gives the masses a bit of hope, but not enough to make them restless. Stanley Tucci makes a vile, vampire-like impression as the Games' on-air master of ceremonies, sporting a navy blue 17th-century periwig and pearly, carnivorous teeth.
The film's other commanding strength is director Gary Ross' instinct for lush, risky visual imagery that makes the film startling. His camera is often handheld, jostling inside a crowd for a better view of the action. At other times it mimics the vantage point of a character, keenly searching for an escape route or stunned and bleary after a near-death shock. The sound goes tinny after a concussive explosion and drops away altogether at a moment of crisis.
Ross makes canny use of his production designers. Katniss' grim hometown evokes Dorothea Lange's photographs of Depression-era Appalachia. When she's transported to the extravagant Capitol, the screen explodes with too-rich color like a noxious version of Dorothy's entry into Oz. With its grandiose Albert Speer architecture and Lagerfeld-on-mushrooms fashions, the hyperbolic, tacky look of the place tells us all we need to know about the inhabitants. Ross creates a world of drastic extremes, and he has a sure grasp of each margin.
I don't think there has been a studio sci-fi film this idea-rich since "The Matrix." Viewers who like a side order of political allegory with their science fiction will find much to savor here. So will romantics, fans of feminist heroines and action enthusiasts. "The Hunger Games" is that rare creation, an event movie of real significance.