Film review: 'The Hunger Games' is violent, but also careful and compelling

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

In this image released by Lionsgate, Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen, left, and Liam Hemsworth portrays Gale Hawthorne in a scene from "The Hunger Games."

AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close

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"THE HUNGER GAMES” *** — Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hensworth, Alexander Ludwig, Donald Sutherland; PG-13 (intense violent thematic material and disturbing images — all involving teens); in general release

The much-awaited film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” begins quietly.

Two well-dressed men are sitting for a television interview. One has blue hair, the other an immaculately trimmed beard that swirls around his face. They carry on a sophisticated conversation about how the Hunger Games has unified their nation.

But a young girl’s scream quickly pulls the viewer away to the grim reality of District 12 — a gray, splintering world of poverty and despair.

It’s a jarring, effective juxtaposition that continues throughout the film and keeps “The Hunger Games” honest. The adaptation of the enormously popular young adult novel could have been made into a high-adrenaline action flick that gave token acknowledgment to the weighty themes of tyranny and injustice. Even worse, it could have been a bloodbath.

But director Gary Ross exhibits great restraint. More importantly, he never lets his viewers forget the difference between those who are starving and dying, and those who make a game of it.

Based on a novel where 24 children are placed in an arena in a made-for-TV fight to the death, “The Hunger Games” is indeed a violent movie. Teenage children die cruel deaths at the hands of nature, weapons and brute force. The PG-13 rating should be taken seriously.

Still, the violence is nowhere near gratuitous, and there’s no room in this film to revel in combat. The audience will be too busy wincing, aching, hurting and seething.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a strong and determined provider for a family that lost its father in a mine accident. She hunts — illegally — outside the fences of her district and cares for her sweet but brittle 12-year-old sister, Primrose.

A nightmare awakes Primrose on “Reaping Day” — an annual lottery where the Capitol, the controlling force of the country of Panem, selects a teenage boy and girl from each of its 12 surrounding district to compete in the Hunger Games. The Capitol president refers to it as “a pageant of honor, courage and sacrifice.”

But it’s actually a televised slaughter of children at the hands of children, punishment for the past “treason” of an uprising.

Meanwhile, an obtuse Capitol populace treats it like a sporting event, cheering on the competitors, called “tributes,” and placing bets on their lives.

Despite long odds, Primrose’s name is drawn, and Katniss steps forward to take her place in the arena.

She’s joined by Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson, a baker’s son. They’re basically strangers, except for the fact that Peeta once saved Katniss from the brink of starvation. The District 12 tributes are whisked off to the Capitol, where they are wrapped in luxury while being prepared and trained for almost certain death.

Fussing around the tributes is the clueless Effie Trinket, played by Elizabeth Banks, who can’t see the plight of these teenagers through her caked-on white makeup. The tributes are mentored by a drunk named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the lone surviving victor of the Hunger Games from District 12.

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