On Thursday night, downtown Berkeley was flooded with teenagers. Lined around the block from the United Artists movie theater, these kids meant business. They had the long-wait-in-line blankets at the ready, they had provisions packed and of course, some sported fan-made shirts (“Team Peeta” vs. “Team Gale”). Save for the few older members of the crowd, this could’ve been just another “Twilight” midnight premiere. But, there were no werewolves or vampires here. This massive ensemble gathered in the freezing night hours for the film adaption of “The Hunger Games” — an entirely different type of beast.
Since “The Hunger Games” book trilogy was released between 2008 and 2010, it has drawn comparison to the other large-scale book franchise of the late 2000s — Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series. And sure, they’re both young adult novels that feature a teenage, female protagonist with occasional boy issues. After that, the two have nothing in common. “The Hunger Games” is set in an unspecified future where North America (now called Panem) has been divided into 12 districts — ranging from the metropolitan and highly stylized capitol in District 1 to the coal-dusted backwoods of District 12 where the books’ protagonist, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen resides. Every year two tributes (between the ages of 12 and 18) are chosen by lottery to compete in a “Battle Royale”-style fight to the finish.
It’s a thoroughly dystopian and raw atmosphere that director Gary Ross has brought to life with impeccable casting and a fast-paced energy. Jennifer Lawrence exudes a nuanced stoicism as Katniss while Woody Harrelson revels with delight as the debauched drunk Hamish Abernathy. Not to mention, Wes Bentley, who plays gamemaker Seneca Crane, has just about the best looking facial hair currently on the big screen. The unique characters, who ring true to the spirit of the books, and the vibrant look of the sets and costumes is where the film succeeds. Ross is able to translate the rich details of the books to screen ably. But that’s all it is: translation.
To be fair, “The Hunger Games” presents a serious problem for film adaptation. It’s a story in which 22 kids are mercilessly slaughtered by their peers. That’s hardly PG-13 material. And the lack of graphic violence (though there is blood on screen and plentiful shocks) does somewhat diminish the dire stakes of games in question. On top of that, the sometimes cartoonish special effects (in particular, when Katniss steps on her fellow tribute Peeta, disguised as a rock) take the viewer out of the film. At times “The Hunger Games” appears as two movies at once: a realistic portrayal of humanity’s brutality and a fantasy world a la “Harry Potter.” And while “The Hunger Games” doesn’t excel at either, it executes its job efficiently.