In the gritty, big-budget dystopia of “The Hunger Games,” the Occupy movement may have finally found its three-picture franchise, or at least an alternative to that pancaked brood of one-percenters in “Twilight.” Of course, director Gary Ross’ hundred-million-dollar production price tag started out around half that figure, rapidly swelling into a monster with all the potential to crash and burn microstudio Lionsgate.
Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign and a stunning performance by franchise lead Jennifer Lawrence, that outcome doesn’t seem likely. The film is tracking like a sequel, charting three times as much interest as the initial “Twilight,” poised to recoup its production budget during opening weekend.
So the numbers game is a foregone conclusion, but what about the bigger gamble? Namely, taking a beloved book with three million copies in print and blowing it out onto the big screen. Yes, three million readers is a sizable fan base, but what about the rest of us?
The good news here is that “Hunger Games” succeeds almost in spite of itself. Condensing 374 pages into a 142-minute film necessitates some cuts, but the strategy of the writing team assembled here — director Ross along with reclusive “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, adaptor of the big-screen “24″ — is more about condensing.
For example, the Everdeen family pet Buttercup hisses on-screen briefly, but we never learn that Katniss tried to drown the poor, worm-swollen kitty when her little sister Prim brought him home to their Appalachian digs. We get a glimpse of the Mockingjay pin, but never learn that this hybrid, post-apocalyptic bird reminds Katniss of her father tragically lost in the mines.
Still, Buttercup’s hiss gets a laugh from the audience, some of whom sport their own brass Mockingjay pins. This is a crowd already familiar with the source material, ready to take it in shorthand if they have to, but the overall effect elevates this civil war-torn, post-apocalyptic North America, now known as Panem, and its annually televised death battle, to the dusty realm of semiotics.
And these semantics are a tad heavy-handed. The downtrodden denizens of Katniss’ hometown District 12, Panem’s coal country, look like they wandered out of a Dorothea Lange Dust Bowl portrait while the cotton candy wigged foppery on parade in the totalitarian Capitol, which mandates and hosts the games, looks ready to wander into the latest Lady Gaga video. It doesn’t leave much room for character development.
Enter Jennifer Lawrence, eager to snatch that “most miserable” sash from Renee Zellweger and wave it high and proud for her generation. The twenty-one-year-old already has an Oscar nomination for 2010′s “Winter’s Bone,” a similar trek into white trash misery, but she’s still relatively unknown, as is most of this cast under thirty. If “Hunger Games” took a single note from “Twilight” or Harry Potter, it’s that you don’t need to cast stars in the lead; the franchise will eventually vaunt them above the marquee.
But Lawrence plays Katniss like an Appalachian fiddle, having fun with a hero who needs to buoy two more films, but is an awfully compulsive liar. Witness her telling sis, “Nothing bad will happen to you, I promise” just before the tyke’s number comes up in the Hunger Games lottery; or how she whispers, “It’s going to be fine” as another character dies in her arms. But once she suits up for the second act in leather that’s slightly baggier — but just as badass — as last year’s literary vixen come to life, Lisbeth Salander, it’s a tightly paced, almost wordless performance that sings like a Mockingjay.
Unfortunately, her supporting cast doesn’t fare as well. The diminutive Josh Hutcherson is physically miscast as baker’s son Peeta Mellark, described in the books as broad-shouldered from throwing sacks of flour around, and Liam Hemsworth, the other leg of the de riguer boy-girl-boy teen lit triangle, is just waiting around for the next installment when his Gale Hawthorne has more to do.
Bigger names also falter. Woody Harrelson goes restrained for once as Haymitch Abernathy, the boozy, District 12 Hunger Games champ along for the ride as Katniss and Peeta’s coach. The book actually calls for Abernathy to collapse in pools of his own vomit at regular intervals, but the most Harrelson can muster is the occasional stumble.
Lenny Kravitz, as Katniss’ stylist Cinna — of course she has a stylist, this is television, after all — fumbles along woodenly looking ridiculous in gold eyeliner that, please God, won’t become a guyliner trend. Mr. Kravitz, step away from the MAC counter, and don’t quit your night job. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are more successful as the public face of the Hunger Games turning in the broad strokes required.
This mashup of Orwell’s Big Brother with CBS’ “Big Brother” is where the book’s nihilistic heart beats and the film goes for an assault on mass media’s televised mind control with gusto, yet leaves Collins’ themes of state control through nutrition — The Real Hunger Games — largely unexplored. After all, this movie needs to sell tubs of popcorn, not to mention co-brand a Happy Meal.
So while the big-screen “Hunger Games” is probably just as much a screed against our reality TV-obsessed culture as “The Lorax” is an environmentalist tract, it nonetheless manages to remain rather faithful to its source material white pulling off that small miracle of clocking in at almost two and a half hours without a single smartphone glow lighting the darkened theater. “The Hunger Games” has our attention, whether it can occupy us for two more films is anyone’s guess.