There's good and bad news regarding the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' enormously successful young adult novel The Hunger Games
. First the good news: you don't need to read the book to follow the storyline of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenage girl living in a dystopian future in which children are chosen by lottery as Tributes for the Hunger Games, the annual gladiator-style battle to the death that celebrates the decades-old suppression of a rebellious uprising and reinforces the power of the state.
Now the bad news: the movie is much grimmer than the book. That's because the first-person narrative of 16-year-old Katniss is missing. Instead, we get a more impersonal account of life in what was once North America and is now Panem, a nation of 12 Districts ruled by an autocratic Capitol that uses the Hunger Games to entertain Capitol citizens and keep the laborers of the Districts in line.
Sacrificing Personal Narrative
While director Gary Ross stays fairly true to the novel, without Katniss' energetic interior monologues there isn't much to lighten a tale heavy on brutality and killing. Absent is her ongoing interior debate over whom she can trust and how far she'll go to survive. Although readers were privy to Katniss's conflicted inner thoughts, her self-doubt, and her confusion over what she feels for her lifelong friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her District partner in the Hunger Games Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), moviegoers in comparison are left in the dark. Jennifer Lawrence's expressive face and gestures do compensate somewhat, but much is lost in translation. The sweetness of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta (who has quietly loved her from afar for many years) is a watered-down version of what they share in the book, and Peeta has little opportunity to convince moviegoers of his personal integrity and determination to stay true to himself.
Heroines, Heroes and Villains
While the film portrays Katniss as more heroic, it also makes her less accessible as a character. In the book she's confused, abrasive and impulsive -- characteristics common to teen girls -- but in the film we only get glimpses of that side of her. In fact, she's so silent that she appears more enigmatic and unknowable than she is in the book. While Katniss the narrator is chatty and charmingly conflicted in the novel, Katniss the film heroine is almost taciturn and devoid of any girlishness. None of this is Jennifer Lawrence's fault; her rounded features and guileless look make the 21-year-old actress credible as a 16-year-old, and her acting is impressive. Likewise, 19-year-old Josh Hutcherson as Peeta is also boyish enough to pass for 16, but Liam Hemsworth as Gale simply looks and feels too old for the role.
For the most part, the adult roles are well-cast. Woody Harrelson is a brilliant choice for Haymitch, the boozy and unpredictable mentor to District 12's Tributes; a previous Hunger Games winner, he uses alcohol to dull the pain but remains shrewd enough to know how to effectively play the game. Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, the Capitol's Hunger Games liaison to District 12, is chillingly vapid and pasty-white under garish neon eyeshadows and fake lashes. And Donald Sutherland as Panem's President initially exudes grandfatherly benevolence but slowly dials back on the charm, exposing a cruel and ruthless core.
Somber Mood, Dark Tone
Although the book is graphic and gory, the movie is less so, undoubtedly to maintain a PG-13 rating. However, the somber mood and certain emotionally wracking scenes can be hard to take. This is not a "hide your eyes for a few seconds" kind of movie; the darkness comes from the situations Katniss and Peeta find themselves in and the almost sociopathic delight of a handful of Tributes who track, taunt and kill with a near-celebratory glee. Children younger than 10 should probably not see this film.
What a Heroine Wants
The power and strength of The Hunger Games
lies within Katniss herself. She's a character so compellingly written that it's no wonder her fans include adult women from their twenties on up
. Without aid of magic or the protection of vampires and werewolves -- themes that have dominated young adult fiction and the most popular heroines of the past decade -- she survives using her wits, her physical prowess with a bow and arrow, and her persistence. At the same time she also demonstrates those typically female qualities of caring, nurturing, and compassion that are rarely perceived of as heroic. The sacrifices she makes throughout the movie -- for her sister, her mother, and Peeta -- strengthen rather than diminish her, and are recognized and celebrated instead of overlooked or taken for granted.
If The Hunger Games becomes the next big movie franchise, it'll be a welcome jolt of energy and female self-determination and encourage girls to dream bigger than marrying their neighborhood vampire and having a baby right after high school. With the influence of the last big thing Twilight waning under the coming of Breaking Dawn Part 2, it's about time for a stronger, smarter, more self-directed heroine to begin catching fire and redefining how female empowerment is represented on film.