‘The Hunger Games’ goes to war

“The Hunger Games” — both Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy and the Gary Ross movie adaptation of the first novel, which opened Friday — is harsh stuff. There’s violence, some of it bloody. And yes, in the tradition of lit classics like “Lord of the Flies,” there’s physical violence involving children. Kids killing kids.

But imagine the opening half hour of “Saving Private Ryan” without its graphic depiction of the storming of Omaha Beach. You can’t, because that heart- and gut-wrenching scene — while taken from real life, rather than Collins’ deftly accomplished fiction — set the tone for all that followed. The stakes were high, the scene told us.

And even though the movie adaptation of the first of Collins’ best-selling young-adult novels — “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” — takes place in an imaginary future world, the stakes for its characters are just as high.

And they’re pretty high for readers of Collins’ books and viewers of Ross’ movie, too.

Much has been made about how violent the books and movie are and if that’s appropriate for the young adult audiences for which they were intended. But I can’t imagine a better message for young people than the idea at the core of Collins’ stories: Freedom is worth any cost.

But enough of philosophy. The movie from director Ross (“Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit”) is a very good adaptation of Collins’ story. Maybe as good as could have been hoped for.

If you’ve read this far you probably know the story, but here’s a quick recap. The story is set in a future America called Panem. Seventy-four years have passed since a rebellion among the country’s 13 districts. The controlling Capitol punished the districts — aside from wiping one of them, 13, off the map — by instituting the Hunger Games. The name comes from the state of poverty most of the country’s citizens live in. While the citizens of the Capitol live in luxury, eating well, dressed and made up in florid, frivolous style, the people of the districts live an impoverished existence, scrambling to find enough to eat even as they produce the coal or grain used to feed the rich of the Capitol.

In each year’s Hunger Games, each of the 12 remaining districts are forced to offer up two Tributes, teenagers to do battle to the death in a specially-built arena for the televised amusement of the nation. Most years, the professional athlete/warriors from the wealthy districts win the Hunger Games.

The citizens of District 12, in what used to be the coal-mining countryside of Appalachia, are accustomed to their state, although some, like Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) defy the Capitol by crossing the boundary fence and hunting in the forests nearby. It is here that Katniss sharpens her archery skills.

When the Reaping — the day the Tributes are chosen — comes for the 74th time, Katniss’ young sister, Prim, is chosen. Katniss volunteers herself as a substitute and, along with baker’s son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is chosen as District 12’s contestants in the annual bloodbath.

Katniss and Peeta travel to the Capitol with Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), District 12’s only living winner from past Hunger Games. Haymitch is to be their mentor in the games, giving them advice and securing sponsors, whose help can be vital because they can provide water, food or medicine.

If “The Hunger Games” drags at all, it is during the first half, as Katniss and Peeta prepare for the games. Even though the training and build-up to the competition is interesting, the story shifts into a higher gear when the games begin.

Katniss and Peeta find themselves competing against 22 other Tributes, including the brutal and well-trained professionals. They also build alliances, Peeta with those stronger competitors (at first) and Katniss with an endearing young Tribute named Rue (Amandia Stenberg).

The games go by quickly, literally in a blur during the fighting, when Ross’ camera work is a little too jostled for my tastes.

But the quiet moments — Katniss and Rue, Katniss and Peeta, Katniss trying to survive — are perfect and capture the tone of Collins’ story.

Since the story is all about control and manipulation — the Capitol portrays the Hunger Games as an annual reminder of the rebellion, and it is that, but it is also a way for evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to punish the districts — Collins had an ingenious idea to make teenagers the principals. Teens are all about rebelling against control and authority, of course.

The movie features a couple of hints about what is to come in the later books — and movies, considering “The Hunger Games” made $20 million in Thursday midnight showings and another $65 million or more on Friday, according to the Hollywood Reporter — especially in scenes of a riot in one of the districts watching the competition.

But while “The Hunger Games,” book and movie, stand on their own, they’re better as part of a trilogy, a story that tells of the events that change this future society forever.

Ross’ movie expands the story somewhat — including behind-the-scenes control room moments and shots of Haymitch wooing sponsors — and unfortunately limits some aspects, particularly the bonding between Katniss and Rue.

But it’s hard to imagine a better effort to capture the story, characters and spirit of “The Hunger Games.”

 

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