The first real event movie in a year littered with them, The Hunger Games is poised to inherit the mantle of “Next Great Young Adult Novel Franchise Turned Blockbuster Film Franchise” from the concluded Harry Potter series and the wish-it-never-had-been Twilight series. Many have tried and failed (we’re looking at you, I Am Number and Percy Jackson), but The Hunger Games mostly deserves the honor; it delivers the goods, although it is a little soft around the edges and lacking in bite.
The Hunger Games bears an undeniable resemblance to the Japanese cult classic Battle Royale (as well as American Idol, Survivor, 1984, The Running Man, and a ton of other influences that are cleverly exploited), an equally stark tale of a dystopic future regime that keeps its population in line by subjecting its children to an annual death match. Battle Royale‘s commentary was drowned out by its excessive and almost cartoonish violence.
The Hunger Games (rated a mild PG-13) errs on the side of caution in that regard — a smart move, lest it turn such prime material in exploitation-film fodder — but it also mutes the other grim details that define its world. Katniss and her folk don’t look much like the half-starved laborers they’re supposed to be; Haymitch’s alchoholism is glossed over; the heavy-handedness of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is intimated but never quite illustrated — he’s more stern grandfather than oppressive dictator.
Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) does an excellent job in bringing Collins’ world to life visually (though he lacks a distinctive style) and delivers some well-designed action beats (especially the free-for-all that kicks off the games), but arguably he’s used to material that’s less grim than this; he pulls too many punches in adapting a story known for its ability to deliver a gut-punch or two.
Ultimately, it’s the cast that brings the movie to life, especially Lawrence. Much like ladies in the recent Haywire and last year’s Hanna, Katniss is woman who doesn’t need to be rescued and who is able to survive on her own very sharp wits. She rescues not only herself, but also her love interest. In your face, Bella.