There was a subtle humming noise that could be heard just after the announcement that Suzanne Collins' wildly successful novel, The Hunger Games, would be adapted for film. It was the sound of everyone on the Internet going "OMG," industry executives planning whatever it is that rich people plan before getting richer, and T-shirts being printed with "Team Peeta" and "Team Gale" where "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob" had been before. It was typical white noise, and none of it mattered. Director Gary Ross' take on The Hunger Games works because it's strictly, unabashedly, Team Katniss.
Forced to survive in a postapocalyptic society divided into 12 districts (each one poorer than the last save for the wealthy Capitol, home of the totalitarian government and the very lucky), 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a fiercely capable young woman. Certainly, she had some help along the way. Her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) provided her with invaluable hunting tips, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a boy from town, gave her bread when starvation seemed inevitable. Even those experiences, however, were lessons in self-reliance. Her family couldn't help her (her father was dead, her mother too depressed, and her sister too young), and receiving government aid meant entering one's name multiple times into a lottery system that determined which children would participate in an annual, government-sponsored, televised death match called the Hunger Games. Despite unlikely odds, it is Katniss' 12-year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields) who is chosen to fight for her life in the arena. Katniss immediately volunteers in her place. Making matters worse, one of her competitors is Peeta, the baker's son responsible for saving her life years before.
Clearly, Katniss is a protagonist who can take care of herself in a crisis. When the novels were adapted for film, the question became whether or not actress Jennifer Lawrence could carry her story. On the plus side, this is Lawrence's movie as much as it is Katniss' tale. Like Katniss, Lawrence is beautiful, but in a way that is secondary to the task at hand. She is able to capture the beaten-down, yet doggedly determined (and, when nobody's looking, kind) aura that a heroine of this nature needs to seem real. Her biggest strength is in her facial expressions, which capture happiness, sadness, and everything in between without ever going over the top. Hutcherson is somewhat bland as Peeta, but this isn't entirely his fault, as his role is much less prominent in the beginning of the series. And the supporting cast is excellent (most notably Stanley Tucci as flamboyant television host Caesar Flickerman, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss and Peeta's troubled mentor).
Inevitably, The Hunger Games has been compared to Battle Royale, a 2000 Japanese film adapted from Koushun Takami's novel about a twisted government plot which forces a group of classmates to fight to the death on a deserted island. Despite an undeniably similar theme of kids killing kids per the demands of adults, the stories are different enough. Battle Royale, however, never shied away from bloodshed, while The Hunger Games loses something as result of its restraint. Though the combination of sensitive subject matter and a PG-13 rating must be taken into consideration, the fight sequences are at times inexcusably lazy, repeatedly relying on shots of violently rustling foliage and sounds of distress to imply mayhem, rather than show it onscreen. However, this is the only major stylistic mishap. The juxtaposition of the bleakness of Katniss' poverty-stricken mining community with the Capitol's Oz-like metropolis is appropriately jarring, and the absence of both malice and compassion from those watching the Games makes the disconnect between the haves and have-nots palpable.
As the film closes, the audience gets the sense that The Hunger Games never really ended, and not simply because there are two books to go in the series. The people responsible for this movie have allowed the material to stand on its own, and respected the ability of young adults to allow romance to take a backseat to issues of class, mass media, and one truly badass female whose bravery and compassion are a welcome change from the swooning, boy-crazy heroines of days gone by.