Book’s still better.
After a year of incessant pounding from the tribal drums of hype, the film adaptation of “The Hunger Games’’ has arrived in theaters. The millions of readers, young and old, who devoured Suzanne Collins’s future-shock adventure thriller and its two sequels will be satisfied, on balance, by the compromises Hollywood has made while keeping the story essentially true to itself. The many millions more who haven’t read the books may have a perfectly entertaining night at the movies while wondering what exactly the fuss was all about.
There’s a scene early on in both book and film in which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the tough, resourceful teenage heroine who has been chosen to represent her district in the nationally televised killing games of the title, has her clothes set alight. It’s part of her entrance into the Games’ lavish opening ceremonies, and her assigned stylist, Cinna (a quietly sympathetic Lenny Kravitz), has draped Katniss and her fellow District 12 contestant, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), in capes that burst into flames without harming the wearer. The crowd goes wild; Katniss is immediately dubbed “the girl on fire.’’
It’s a moment almost as effective on the screen as it is on the page, but it illustrates the larger missed opportunity of the film, one that’s as much a matter of luck as of skill. This is not a movie on fire, and it should have been. It may be that a pop franchise with this much profit potential is too valuable for any movie version to take chances. Perhaps that’s why a dependable director like Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,’’ “Seabiscuit’’) has been handed the reins to deliver the goods with tact and imagination (he also brings an overly wobbly camera). But one longs to know what a visionary stylist on the order of a David Fincher, an Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men’’), or a “Blade Runner’’-era Ridley Scott could have done with this material.
What “The Hunger Games’’ does have is a game cast, a large budget well spent, Collins on board as co-writer, and Lawrence as Katniss. Having already proven she can take a licking and keep on kicking in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,’’ the 21-year-old actress is up to the story’s physical challenges and ultimately its emotional ones. A gifted archer and hunter, Katniss is an outsider in her mining community - she makes her living selling black-market game to support her mother (Paula Malcolmson) and younger sister (Willow Shields) - and when she takes the sister’s place in the annual Reaping ceremony that sends contestants to the Games, it’s with a sullenly ferocious sense of duty. If it takes a while for us to warm to this warrior, it’s because it takes a while for her to warm to her task.
But she does, without sacrificing the canny survivor’s instinct that keeps Katniss alive and moviegoers interested. The Games have been devised by the ruling party in the Capital of Panem - all that’s left of a post-apocalyptic America - to keep the rebellious populace of the districts in check, and they are brutal. (The violence is not overly graphic, but leave the little ones at home.) Scenes of carnage visited upon the weak and unlucky by stronger gamers like the alpha-male Cato (Alexander Ludwig) are harrowing. The novel is as much about strategy as about action - we see through Katniss’s eyes as she lays her own plans and figures out everyone else’s - and enough of that gamesmanship makes it into the film to hoist it above the norm. For the record, the heroine makes the entire cast of the “Twilight’’ saga look like crybabies.
One of the bigger mysteries is Peeta. Is he in love with Katniss or just saying that to build audience interest and attract sponsors, whose gifts might save his life? Will he turn on her in the field? Hutcherson has been a solid utility player in family films for years now, but he’s starting to come of age as an actor, and he does more with his character’s ambiguity than I expected. One of the novel’s slyer jokes is that Peeta’s much better at the psychological long game and that Katniss (and thus the reader) takes forever to see that. But he’s also the story’s designated maiden-in-need-of-rescuing, and Hutcherson has the soulfulness to make the inversion work.
Not everything does; just enough. Ross and his CGI whiz team visualize the Capital as the high-tech Oz it should be (as compared with the WPA-era bleakness of the mines), and its decadent inhabitants are a multiculti-tutti-frutti bunch led by Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the purple-haired Ryan Seacrest of Armageddon. He’s wonderful, Donald Sutherland as President Snow is subtly menacing, and Wes Bentley in the much-expanded role of Seneca Crane, master of the Games, has intriguingly satanic facial hair designed, I guess, to make us forget how closely the character is modeled on Ed Harris’s Christof in “The Truman Show.’’
(If you want to count off this movie’s obvious inspirations, by the way, you’ll run out of fingers and toes. “Truman Show’’ and “Wizard of Oz’’ are joined by “Logan’s Run,’’ “The Running Man,’’ “The Most Dangerous Game,’’ “The 10th Victim,’’ “1984,’’ “Big Brother,’’ “Red Dawn,’’ and countless other influences, and there’s an angry online contingent of “Battle Royale’’ fans that want their 2000 drive-in Japanese classic left in peace. All of which proves that it’s never about where you get a story from, but what you do with it that counts.)
I wish the film had done more with the District 12 team’s boozy, savvy mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, whom Woody Harrelson invests with about 10 percent of his talent. (In fairness, he doesn’t have the screen time.) And poor Elizabeth Banks is lost beneath 8 pounds of Kabuki makeup and Tim Burton outerwear as Effie Trinket.
The greater missed chance is Rue, and fans of the book will know what I mean. The youngest and most vulnerable of the 24 contestants, Rue bonds with Katniss in a relationship that, on the page, packs a wallop. Amandla Stenberg plays the role with sensitivity and fire but without the otherworldly spookiness that made the character so memorable, and audiences unfamiliar with the source may question why they’re being asked to feel emotions the movie doesn’t seem to have earned. In particular, there’s a loaf of bread that should be here and isn’t. (What replaces it is a more epic scene meant to convey the oppressive nature of the Capital’s regime, information that arguably should have been made clearer at the movie’s start.)
Like the book, “The Hunger Games’’ doesn’t end so much as open the door to the next installment; it’s frustrating, but you’ll probably feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth. Somewhere in here, though, is a bigger, more resonant movie that could have brushed against the story’s allegorical anxieties: how the grown-up world pits youth against itself; how the entertainment industry pushes violence and death for profit; how the world beyond high school can be a killing field - pick your paranoia.
What we’ve been given instead is a very reasonable facsimile aimed at upsetting the fewest people while making the biggest amount of money.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.