Review: ‘The Hunger Games’ a winning story of sacrifice and survival

Los Angeles Times Film Critic

When you’re talking about “The Hunger Games,” it all comes down to Katniss.

Like other strong-minded women who have driven book sales into the stratosphere — think Lisbeth Salander of the “Dragon Tattoo” triology and even Bella Swan of the “Twilight” series — ace archer Katniss Everdeen is an indomitable heroine whom nothing fazes or flusters for long.

Making a successful “Hunger Games” movie out of Suzanne Collins’ novel required casting the best possible performer as Katniss, and in Jennifer Lawrence director Gary Ross and company have hit the bull’s-eye, so to speak.

Photos: Meet the main cast of ‘The Hunger Games’

An actress who specializes in combining formidable strength of will with convincing vulnerability, Lawrence is the key factor in making “Hunger Games” an involving popular entertainment with strong narrative drive that holds our attention by sticking as close to the book’s outline as it can manage.

As those who’ve seen Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated work in “Winter’s Bone” know, playing Ree Dolly in that film gave the actress a head start on Katniss. Not only was Ree similarly determined and intrepid, she paralleled Katniss in growing up poor in blighted surroundings and having to head the family after the departure of her father hampered her mother’s ability to cope.

Ree’s story, however, was set in the present, while Katniss’ tale unfolds in a bleak future where a nation called Panem exists where the United States once stood. Every year, to mark the anniversary of a peace treaty that ended a bloody rebellion, each of Panem’s districts has to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, known as tributes, to the Capitol to participate in a brutal kill-or-be-killed event called the Hunger Games. Only one child comes out alive.

Photos: ‘The Hunger Games’ premiere

“This is how we remember our past,” intones the official propaganda for this, the 74th annual games, set in a sizable wooded area that functions as an outdoor arena. “This is how we safeguard our future.” So that no one misses the message, numerous concealed cameras turn the Hunger Games into the ultimate in must-see TV for Panem’s residents.

Collins came up with the idea for “Hunger Games” while switching between a reality TV show and coverage of the Iraq war. And the finished film, though it combines elements familiar from short stories “The Lottery” and “The Most Dangerous Game,” does come off as a lethal “Survivor” or even”American Idol” with deadly weapons.

In District 12, where coal mining is a way of life and the people dress like characters from “The Grapes of Wrath,”16-year-old Katniss is primarily concerned with getting food for her family and bonding with her hunky best friend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).

But when her 12-year-old sister gets chosen as a tribute, Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her place and heads off to the Capitol clutching a pin in the shape of a mockingjay (the visual symbol of both book and film) as a good luck charm.

Photos: Josh Hutcherson vs. Liam Hemsworth

On the train to the Capitol, Katniss exchanges glances with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow District 12 tribute, and spends quality time with key players like the ebullient Effie Trinket (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) and the inebriated Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former champion who is supposed to mentor both Peeta and Katniss.

At the Capitol, an effete, decadent place that looks like a 1930s image of futuristic architecture, more characters materialize, including Stanley Tucci’s foppish host and Lenny Kravitz’s sensitive pageant stylist. Preliminaries out of the way, the games begin with roughly an hour gone and 90 minutes left on the clock.

Since what happens during the Hunger Games should stay in the Hunger Games, specifics of the combat will not be revealed here, except to mention the presence of young actress Amandla Stenberg, who makes a powerful impression as 12-year-old Rue.

Though the film is faithful to the book, the trio of practiced screenwriters (Ross, who has a trio of Oscar script nominations, author Collins and Billy Ray) have made some changes. The biggest one is elimination of the book’s first-person structure, which allows for scenes — such as private conversations between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and head gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) — that were not in the novel.

Ross also makes the shrewd choice to have us frequently glimpse the unfolding games action on the huge TV screens the citizens of Panem are watching, enhancing the uncomfortable intertwining of violence and voyeurism that is one of the story’s themes.

As to the kid-on-kid violence that has been the subject of so much talk, Ross has managed to adroitly downplay that, keeping the mayhem to a PG-13 level. Most of the children in the film want nothing to do with killing, and the ones who do look considerably older than the heroines of previous ultra-violent films like “Hanna” and “Kick-Ass.”

Katniss, of course, is one of the reluctant participants, and Lawrence’s ability to involve us in her struggle is a key to the effectiveness of “Hunger Games.” The film’s strengths are not so much in its underlying themes or its romantic elements, (the weakest aspect, in fact) but its recognition of the book’s narrative strengths and its ability play them straight. If, as the ads suggest, the whole world will be watching this, viewers will likely be satisfied with what they see.