Yep, there's little that's new under the dome of The Hunger Games' battle arena - except the character at the center. Katniss Everdeen is the kind of heroine too little seen in pop culture: a strong and capable young woman, utterly human in her anxieties about her shortcomings, and in no way defined by the men around her, unlike other much-adored recent book series we could name. It's easy to understand why female readers in particular have gravitated to her adventures with a unique sense of personal connection. There's one thing a film adaptation of The Hunger Games simply had to do, and that's give audiences a Katniss as gripping and powerful as Collins' creation.
That's exactly what director Gary Ross does by casting the remarkable Jennifer Lawrence - although the choice does seem like something of an obvious one. Like her breakout Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone, Katniss is a teenager living in an impoverished area, helping support a family with an absent father and an emotionally devastated mother. The premise finds Katniss volunteering to take the place of her younger sister as her district's female "tribute" in the ritual competition-to-the-death known as The Hunger Games - a tradition built on a punishment for a failed attempt at overthrowing the government - but there's nothing superhuman about Katniss, or her sacrifice. She's just a loving big sister putting the safety of others ahead of herself.
Ross's first act in particular does a terrific job of showcasing Lawrence, focusing on the bleak world of District 12 in muted grey tones and a complete absence of background score. On the whole, The Hunger Games is a surprisingly quiet blockbuster, which plays perfectly into Lawrence's presence as an actor. She's equally convincing as the uncompromising spirit who shakes up a crowd with a demonstration of her archery prowess, and as the introvert frustrated at the idea that she has to become a likeable reality-television star. And the star and director both nail the beginning of the competition itself, as a terrified Katniss visibly shakes at the fate awaiting her, and the opening minutes of the Games themselves explode in an almost mute jumble of carnage.
The Hunger Games soars when Lawrence's Katniss is the focal point - and when she's not, it doesn't. Where Collins' book leaves largely subtextual the idea that Katniss could be a rallying point for disenfranchised citizens, the film introduces several scenes making it considerably more overt that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Games' overseer (Wes Bentley) are stacking the deck against her. The screenplay - by Ross, Collins and screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) - features some frustrating inefficiencies, like opening with onscreen captions explaining the origins of the Games, then repeating much of that same story in a video presentation. The dialogue is spare, but when it comes, it's too often baldly expository. And there's the unfortunate matter of Katniss' District 12 co-participant in the Games, Peeta, with Josh Hutcherson disappearing into the background as he's unable to match Lawrence's performance.
As is the case with the book, the second half's focus on sheer survival propels the narrative forward in a generally satisfying way, building tense individual set pieces on Katniss's relationships with Peeta and with a young combatant named Rue (Amandla Stenberg) who becomes a surrogate sister. There's not much time to explore fully the world of PanEm that gave rise to the Games, or anything that might be distinctive about this particular mass-marketed slaughter, but that's not a major problem. When it works best, The Hunger Games isn't really about The Hunger Games. It's a showcase for the low-key ferocity of Jennifer Lawrence, playing the kind of hero that's always the most compelling: the kind who begins to change the world simply by doing what she believes is the only right thing to do.
The Hunger Games
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Wes Bentley
Directed by Gary Ross