Movie review: The Hunger Games

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From the March 22, 2012 edition

It’s pretty easy to turn a best-selling book into a movie that makes a lot of money. It’s less easy to turn one into a movie that’s actually good.

Filmmakers get the unenviable job of balancing the expectations of a book’s fans — who want all of their favorite nuances on the big screen — and the uninitiated — who want a well-paced movie that doesn’t get them lost in characters and side plots.

For example, the “Harry Potter” movies improved when, midway through the series, some of the material from the book was excised in the interest of tightening the movies.

Which brings us, of course, to “The Hunger Games,” the latest bazillion-selling book to be made into a presumed bazillion-dollar-making blockbuster.

So is this a movie that’s good for the fans or good for the uninitiated? The answer, thankfully, is both. This is adaptation done right.

As with most sci-fi, the biggest stumbling block for new audiences may be in setting up the mythology, so here’s a primer.

Set in the future ruins of what was once North America, Panem is a land composed of a central Capitol and 12 outlying districts.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 16-year-old living a hard life in impoverished District 12. Since her father’s death in a mining accident, she has cared for an emotionally frail mother and protected an innocent little sister named Prim.

Every year, each of the 12 districts must send one boy and one girl to fight in the Hunger Games, a live-televised fight to the death meant to display the might of the Capitol. Katniss gets caught in this year’s blood sport.

Casual audiences who think that a movie trilogy based on a popular young-adult novel equals another “Twilight” should think again. Bella’s incessant pouting would get her killed in about five seconds flat here.

In fact, Suzanne Collins’ beloved trilogy is far more grown-up, layered and dark than you might think.

Collins co-adapted the screenplay with director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “Pleasantville”). The tone of the book and plot are intact, and some minor streamlining in the translation should be forgivable to fans and helpful to newbies.

But the most inspired decision was the casting of Lawrence, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in “Winter’s Bone.” Her emotion simmers behind a genuine and world-weary toughness. You won’t be able to imagine another actress in this role.

Ross stakes darker territory than “Potter” or “Twilight.” The violence involving youths is well-handled, not gratuitous — given the PG-13 rating — but still visceral.

This promises to be a legit sci-fi trilogy — and one of the best book adaptations in years.