It’s easy to think the odds are in one’s favour – option a popular property, write a serviceable screenplay and cast a pretty face. However time and again, what must on paper seem like sure bets manage to fall on their faces in the treatment stage. It could be due to characters not being as strong as they seem, or a property being handled too delicately. With clear focus and careful adaptation though, it is possible to bring the best things about a property to life and not screw it up.

The first big film of 2012 is a case-in-point.

THE HUNGER GAMES takes place in an America that has risen from the ashes of rebellion and renamed itself Panem. To hounour their history and to remind any would-be dissidents, an annual event is held involving the country’s youth. The event is called The Hunger Games. Names of every boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are placed into a lottery, one per district (state). One boy and one girl are chosen as district tributes, and they are brought to an arena in The Capital where they will face other teenaged tributes, and fight to the death.

What’s worse is that the entire nation is forced to watch the events live on television.

In District 12, a young girl named Primrose Everdeen is chosen in her first year of eligibility. In an act of instinctive protectiveness, her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) pulls her out of harm’s way, and volunteers to be tribute instead. Moments later, a boy she knows only slightly named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is selected to join her. The two are handed over to a drunken mentor named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and jetted off to The Capital. There they will be groomed, trained, paraded, and ultimately pushed into action.

While Katniss is a hunter back home, she isn’t all that fussed about being in this position. Ever the young rebel, it’s up to her to figure out a way to get back to the family she stood up to protect – and perhaps how to get Peeta back to his as well.

At the heart of THE HUNGER GAMES is a story of quiet rebellion. In one of her earliest moments, we hear Katniss ask Gale “What if nobody watched?” Before she has even done a moment’s worth of training, she is already thinking about how to buck the system…how to avoid playing these reindeer games entirely. Her defiance doesn’t end there though. She plays up a camaraderie with Peeta – running counter to the ‘every man for himself’ nature of the event. And even when finally dropped into the arena, she adopts a quiet rule of self-defence. She opts not to be a killer, even though she knows that’s who she’s here to be.

That’s the sort of rebellion that gets things done. Katniss isn’t the sort of character to chant from a drum circle about being the 99%. She can see that defiance requires calculated action. To truly rage against the machine, actions must be taken that combine the appearance of playing along. This young woman can see that after becoming a part of a system, she can do even more damage by being inside of it. Sure she might have found herself in this position by impulse, but before long all impulses have given way to calculated insurrection.

With that being the focus of the film, I was encouraged to see that the story downplayed most of the romantic angle. The relationship between Katniss and Peeta is told more than it’s shown, which falls in line with the notion that it’s all an act. What’s more, the affect it’s having on Gale back at home is only glimpsed. The story of THE HUNGER GAMES is one that hinges on a strong young woman who is able to think on her feet during a time of great danger. I think to sell such a character as one who would be continually distracted by girlish crushes and mixed emotions does a disservice to the overarching story. Seeing it all underplayed this time out felt more truthful, and more on-point overall.

With the role of Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence is handed a bit of an advantage right off the hop. In many respects, she is playing the same character she did in WINTER’S BONE. Once again she plays a girl protecting her family that finds the strength to venture into the woods after dark. Once again she is able to embody a very real bond with characters younger than she, and once again she is able to find the fortitude to stand up to those that are older. By now, Lawrence is great at selling both nurturing and mature. Where she pulls her punch a little, is in her demeanour early on. More than once, we hear Haymitch refer to her unpolished, perhaps even unlikable character. Lawrence never brings that out in Katniss. She seems intimidated and overwhelmed by the situation in her quieter moments…but never unlikeable. It’s a curious misstep in an otherwise solid performance.

What the direction and adaptation are able to bring out in Lawrence (and the character of Katniss overall), is a haunting stillness. Before she is dropped into the bloodsport – and even after from time to time – Katniss spends a lot of moments by herself. There’s little soundtrack in these instances, giving the scenes a sense of introspection…a continual “What have I got myself into?” These moments of worry and dread feel fitting for a girl who figuratively threw herself on a grenade, and is wrestling with the reality of what she has signed on to do. Lawrence is able to echo these spots of introspection as the story moves to the arena, though they understandably become scarcer. Scarcity or not, she continues to make them count, and reminds us just how heavy this decision is weighing on her.

Perhaps what THE HUNGER GAMES deserves most credit for is its ability to execute. The filmmakers were handed a sure thing in a young adult property that was already wildly popular the world over: all they had to do was not screw it up. The creative team went one better. They set out to make the best movie possible from the property, and if doing so meant that they would be deviating from the text, so be it. Not every tale is a holy relic, and the true art of adaptation comes in how you shape what has already been established, not how much you want to appease the fan base.

With one solid chapter in the can, THE HUNGER GAMES has caused a spark. The next task will be to ensure that the fire will catch.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on THE HUNGER GAMES.