'The Hunger Games' stands strong as its own entity

April 2, 2012
Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games."

With the last spell cast from the final installment of the "Harry Potter" film franchise, and the twilight of "Twilight" series this summer, movie studios have been desperate to find the next big franchise.

Their ability to capture lightning in a bottle has been littered with many a sci-fi/fantasy corpse, from "The Golden Compass" to "Eragon" to "Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief". The only thing that has come close - "The Chronicles of Narnia" - ended up fizzling like a sparkler in the rain.

The latest is "The Hunger Games," based on author Suzanne Collins' immensely popular young-adult novels. If the "Harry Potter" films served as a generational gateway to fantasy flicks, then "Hunger Games" is a solid primer into the sci-fi genre.

The story is set in a bleak, dystopian future where the United States has now been divided into a country called Panem, which is broken into 12 districts and micromanaged by a lavish-living Capitol. The rulers have devised a particularly twisted event called the Hunger Games, in which youths from each district are pitted against each other in a televised, survival-of-the-fittest battle until there is only one left standing. Much like modern-day sporting events, we have highly trained, big-money districts (let's call them the New England Patriots), and the perennially losing divisions (the Carolina Panthers).

Our heroine, Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is from one of the latter areas, and she enters the game in place of her younger sister, Primrose. She joins another local, Peeta (played by Josh Hutcherson), and they are soon whisked off to train under the guidance of Haymitch (played by a haggard Woody Harrelson), a former winner from their district. He explains to them (and us) the "real" rules of the game, tugging at viewers' heartstrings and attracting "sponsors."

There has been much ink spilled about all aspects of "Hunger Games," from the expectations at the box office (and with an estimated $160 million-$170 million opening, there is bound to be much more) to the similarities Collins' novel has to one Japanese novel titled "Battle Royale," which also pits school-age kids in fights to the death. Those discussions will be left to bean counters and literary historians, respectively. The only matter of concern to the common filmgoer is the quality of the film itself. Having not read a single page of the novels, I can say that "Games" stands strong as its own entity, providing a youth-centric heroine in a sci-fi environment that adult audiences of both genders can rally behind. Katniss is a fighter who must rely on her own cunning and wiles to rise above her environment. She does not have to wait for some sparkling hunk to swoop in and save her. And as the lead, Lawrence provides a range of emotion far beyond that of "Twilight's" Kristen Stewart (the closest cinematic equivalent).

There are times in the film's two-plus-hour runtime that the exposition feels a bit too piled on, but things never get boring. And the game itself is never clearly defined as to its popularity and longevity with the upper-crust citizenry of the colony. The battles themselves are adequate, but never pack the overall emotional, literal winner-take-all heft that they are due. I can only assume that these minor elements are spelled out much more clearly in the books.

But one need look back no further than the first "Harry Potter" film, "The Sorcerer's Stone" to witness how much that franchise has matured and refined itself for the better, so for "Games" to begin on this solid ground speaks well for future franchise installments.

"Games" did not inspire me to rush out to devour the books (though, I assume - and hope - that it would to a more appropriate demographic), but it did make me eager to stand in line for the next cinematic installment of Katniss, Peeta and the other inhabitants within its universe. And in a time when we are told what is to be a blockbuster long before a film even hits the theater, to watch a film that is actually deserving of that title is refreshing enough.

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