It's not often that a book-and-movie franchise targeted at young adults manages to attain cultural-event status. The Twilight Saga came close in recent years, but the audience for vampire-teen-romance is limited mostly to kids of a certain age and gender. Author Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy of books, and the first of four movies to be based on them, is another story. A reported 26 million copies of the books are currently in print. The film's yearlong, social-media-based marketing campaign already has become the envy of Madison Avenue. Analysts are predicting record-shattering box office numbers, and Beatlemania-style anticipation among teens (and others) arrived weeks ago. Even the value of stock in its releasing studio, Lionsgate, has increased 85 percent over the last year, based largely on anticipation of the franchise's impending success.
The weight of all that expectation might have been enough to crush The Hunger Games before it ever hit screens. The movie's small, initial triumph is that it seems to exist in a place far away from all the hoopla. It's well-crafted, briskly paced and admirably focused on the difficult task of adapting a story so many know by heart. The faithful will not be disappointed, and investors have probably opened the Champagne by now. But even with a running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours, something had to be left out of Collins' stark and brutal dystopian tale. The screenplay, which Collins co-wrote with director Gary Ross, sometimes neglects the socio-political background that gives the first book its power. Fans will automatically fill in the blanks, but the uninitiated may wonder why this sleek entertainment struck such a resonant chord with readers.
The Hunger Games takes place in a post-American future, decades after the last rebellion against a totalitarian government failed. To remind the people who's in charge and prevent further uprisings, the government has established the Hunger Games. Two teenagers from each of 12 outlying districts are brought to a huge outdoor arena in the capital for a battle to the death. Only one of 24 may survive. The games are broadcast and viewing is mandatory. Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) stars as Katniss, who volunteers to participate in place of her randomly selected little sister. Lawrence delivers a sturdy and controlled performance not calculated to make her a megastar — which, of course, will happen anyway.
None of this sounds like young adult fiction, but the book's remarkably chaste love triangle remains intact (if a little underplayed), a sure sign of the movie's origins. And the absolute need for a PG-13 rating results in an oddly non violent movie about violence. There's no real gore here, which allows Ross to keep things focused on character and story, and avoid undermining larger themes. Is it all just a metaphor for the horrors everyone suffers in high school? Of course it is. But there's no getting around The Hunger Games' underlying premise — state-sanctioned murder as the ultimate TV reality show. That idea retains some satirical bite, even when its rough edges are ground down for the long-term health of the franchise. — KEN KORMAN