Predictably, the journey from page to screen has taken its toll on the first installment of The Hunger Games. Director Gary Ross, working from a script that he co-wrote with Hollywood writer Billy Ray and Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, has crafted a solid adventure flick that will please the trilogy's fans and win it more than a few new ones. He's even made a few minor improvements on the source material, doling out exposition in small, nicely spaced bites rather than frontloading the film with huge information dumps. But the tightening comes at a price, and an ironic one at that: In order to secure the PG-13 rating necessary to reach its target audience, the eagerly awaited adaptation has filed off many of the sharp edges that made the book so memorable. Not that it will matter much to the trilogy's millions of fans, who won't mind filling in the blanks.
In the unlikely event that you've been confined to a Pakistani prison since 2008 and don't know what The Hunger Games is about, allow me to catch you up. After a failed attempt at revolution, America, now known as Panem, has been divided into 12 districts that are ruled by a decadent city-state known only as the Capitol. To continually punish the districts for their insurrection—and to remind them of what happens when they stand up to their fancy, outrageously made-up "betters"—one boy and one girl from each district are chosen to compete in a yearly grudge match known as the Hunger Games. Twenty-four children are trained for combat, armed, and deposited into an enormous outdoor arena, but only one will be permitted to leave it. The victor is showered with riches, the losers are either slaughtered by their peers or succumb to the more mundane horrors of starvation or infection (not to mention genetically engineered monster-dogs that the Gamemakers can apparently summon from thin air), and everyone, including the children's parents, gets to watch the state-sanctioned bloodshed on TV.
Cue Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an impoverished, steely-nerved huntress from the presumably Appalachian coal-mining state known as District 12. When Kat volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the Game, she and fellow combatant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked off to the Capitol, where Lenny Kravitz gives them Wizard of Oz-style makeovers and Woody Harrelson teaches them how not to get killed in the first 60 seconds of the Game. Around its midway point, the film shifts from coming-of-age drama to a violent and often thrilling survival tale.
If you can get past the incessantly shaky camera work, which Hollywood won't quit doing even though it's distracting and nauseating and everyone hates it, The Hunger Games is actually pretty good stuff. Ross hews fairly close to the source material, and he's assembled a terrific cast that also includes Donald Sutherland as the sinister President Snow and a spectacularly bearded Wes Bentley as Seneca, the Game's designer. Lawrence, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Winter's Bone, is sympathetic and engaging, even if her character has been softened up a bit for her big-screen debut. Earnest performances, coupled with terrific production design that imagines the Capitol as an Orwellian version of Hitler's Berlin with heaping doses of ancient Rome tossed in for good measure, make sure there's almost always something compelling and inventive on screen—even if it isn't the plot.
It's not the fact that the material is derivative that hurts The Hunger Games. Everything borrows from something, and at least Collins and Ross borrow from good stuff, such as Greek mythology, Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery," Lord of the Flies, Logan's Run, and Battle Royale. The problem is that it shies away from the dark corners into which those other tales weren't afraid to take us. It's a disturbing concept and Ross sneaks in enough bloodshed to convey some of the brutality of Collins' book, but the movie glosses over some of the darkest—and best—material. In all fairness, Collins set that precedent herself, though, often opting for neat, easy solutions when her story wanders into its most uncomfortable territory.
So what could have been a truly powerful and unnerving film pulls a lot of punches and becomes well-made, entertaining matinee fare. Still, it must be a nice change of pace for teenage girls who have been fed abysmal garbage like Twilight for the past few years. (Please include both my first and last name on hate mail, otherwise it's confusing.)