Katniss Everdeen stands among two dozen teenagers steeling themselves in Panem’s arena, like Olympic swimmers waiting for the starting gun. Some trade anxious glances. Some eye the weapons resting in front of a giant cornucopia, just a brief sprint away. The sound of a loud, metallic tone, and what was once statuesque silence becomes a frantic scramble. The teens transform into a blur of fists, blades, and blood. Katniss runs, the animus of survival instinct tangible, only to tumble wildly through the bushes as her peers slaughter each other.
It’s undoubtedly the most effective and memorable scene in “The Hunger Games,” a high watermark never quite duplicated in the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime. Nevertheless, director Gary Ross’s pacing and Jennifer Lawrence’s effortless screen presence keep the adaptation enticing from beginning to end.
That was no small task for either director or his star. This is a pre-summer blockbuster with only peripheral use of special effects. It’s a film that spends the vast majority of its time dwelling on Lawrence’s face rather than elaborate set pieces or bombastic, over-choreographed fight sequences.
There’s an explosion or two, and desperate escapes from CG destruction here and there. Of course, there are also fights to the death. To the credit of Ross and author Suzanne Collins (who helped adapt the screenplay), these scenes play out in stark brevity. It’s a refreshingly different take on the action blockbuster.
Here, episodes of violence and death only occasionally punctuate the film’s atmosphere of looming dread and anxiety. Though the (very) minimal gore owes much to the effort to maintain a PG-13 rating, this heightens rather than hurts the dramatic impact of these scenes. Absent are the tired, yawn-worthy camera shots lingering on the allegedly gruesome fare that’s become the staple of filmic violence.
Whether intentionally or not, the film disavows the usual cartoonishness of Hollywood gore to which few are sensitized these days. The unfolding premise that children without personal vendettas are forced to murder each other is more inherently gruesome than any “Saw” sequel.
Much of the gut-level squeamishness audiences will feel as they watch “The Hunger Games” owes to the perspective Collins and Ross have provided in the person of sixteen-year-old Katniss. While the film has taken some dismissive jabs for being merely a “serviceable adaptation” of the source material, Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss comprises a critical distinction.
Gone is the protagonist’s inner voice, the present-tense narration that permeates every page of Collins’s book. Instead, we view Katniss as if through one of Panem’s omnipresent hidden cameras. We might as well be watching the heroine through the lens of some documentary filmmaker. This version of Katniss is enigmatic, silent as she is throughout much of the film.
It’s a challenging feat for a young actor to be the principal in what essentially amounts to documentary footage of a hostage-taking. A terrifying documentary it is, one which plays out on Lawrence’s face rather than the soliloquy on Collins’s pages.
As has been widely pointed out, Lawrence is indeed up to the task. The ease with which she inhabits the camera is remarkable. Hers is a performance that steadily compels the audience towards a palpable empathy. When Katniss finds herself alone for the last time with stylist Cinna (portrayed by a poised Lenny Kravitz), the disembodied voice of the state counting down her inevitable entrance into the arena, we can’t help but share her dread. Lawrence trembles ever so slightly, her eyes betraying fear at last. It’s not a stretch to say that Lawrence’s performance is among the the most effective of any young adult actor ever to grace a big-budget movie. “Twilight” this is not.
This scene is perhaps the only instance in which we see Katniss purely as victim, as the innocent youth she actually is. Yet “Hunger Games” excoriates the feminine victimhood endemic in film. In doing so, Collins, Ross, and Lawrence have each played a part in bringing to life one of the most remarkable characters of pop-fiction, in print or film.
That brings up one of the more vapid complaints of some critics, namely that Lawrence is too curvaceous to play a character as thin and starved as the Katniss originally introduced in the books. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of some of the more zealous fans, the comments about Lawrence’s body seem to say more about the critics than anything else. I’d argue that Lawrence’s face makes the Katniss of the film a more poignant and evocative character than she might otherwise have been. The fact that such an unambiguously strong and courageous young woman is hewn from Lawrence’s cherubic features makes for an interesting challenge to the audience’s preconceptions about feminine personae.
Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called Katniss Everdeen a “brilliant, possibly historic creation – stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation .” For the first time of which I’m aware, Hollywood has rested a blockbuster film franchise on the shoulders a young adult female who is not sexualized. A protagonist whose triumph over her foes owes as much to her intelligence and resourcefulness as her graceful skill with a bow and arrow.
To be sure, there is a love triangle of sorts. The time-honored cliché has a central presence here, but not in a conventional way. The film is buoyed yet again in this respect by Josh Hutcherson, who plays Katniss’s fellow hostage Peeta Malark. A lesser actor might have hammed up the scene in which Peeta reveals that he’s “had a crush [on Katniss] forever,” but like Lawrence, Hutcherson acts with deft ease.
It’s worth pointing out that Lawrence is taller than Hutcherson. It’s a detail that doesn’t go unnoticed late in the film, when traditional pop-fiction gender roles are reversed and Katniss is the one tending and defending a meek and injured Peeta.
Bear in mind also that though Katniss is a far-flung hostage whose skills are borne out of poverty, she’s not necessarily an underdog. In the lead-up to the Games, Katniss becomes something of an odds-on favorite, ranking higher than the other competitors. This makes her a special target in the arena where some of her peers form an alliance to hunt her down. I’ll say it again, Katniss is no Bella Swan.
Speaking of which, comparisons to the “Twilight” series, or even 2000’s “Battle Royale ” are often misguided anyway. Katniss is not a Mary Sue. She is not a bland stand-in onto which projections of neuroticism and hormones are meant to be foisted. Likewise, she’s not a prop for the manga-inspired exploitation-style violence and bloody setpieces that have made Kinji Fukasaku’s film a cult classic.
Another important difference between Collins’s story and its predecessor “Battle Royale” is the way it evokes the New World captivity narratives published during post-Columbian colonialism and the pioneering of the American frontier in the 1800s. Consider Katniss a future version of Mary Rowlandson, the 17 th century English colonist who wrote of her abduction by Native Americans.
While Rowlandson offered insight into the cultural constructs useful for colonialism, Collins has created a kind of satire of the modern society in which her readers are coming of age. Call the denizens of the Capitol the 1% or the establishment elites; Occupiers or tea party, the underlying animus is similar. The unprecedented concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, and the feelings of disenfranchisement that animate contemporary populism are presented starkly in “The Hunger Games.”
Maybe too starkly, at least when it comes to the overt otherness of the elites. While Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci are delightfully garish, the Capitol’s colorful masses are hardly as memorable. Albeit adequately alien in dress and culture, the enthralled elites nevertheless seem jarringly unrealistic. The excessive frou-frou styles and candy-colored hair may have worked on the written page, but here these people just seem too silly to be taken seriously.
Games head-honcho Seneca’s goofy beard is distracting enough that Wes Bentley is essentially invisible. Less silly though no less forgettable is Panem’s dictator, President Snow. Donald Sutherland lends the character some wizened gravitas but little else. More memorable are the aforementioned Cinna and grizzled Games vet Haymitch Abernathy. Haymitch may be a contrived archetype, but Harrelson doesn’t phone it in, making the most of his dialogue and screen-time.
Nevertheless, the weaker (yet well-acted) characters are only ever in the periphery of the story, mere shadow puppets surrounding our heroine. Importantly, while the settings are larger than life, our protagonist isn’t. Katniss is special, both in the context of “The Hunger Games” and film in general, yet she’s as relatable as she is heroic. The odds may be “ever in her favor,” yet she’s one in twenty four biologically normal human teenagers. There are no special powers here.
The humanity of the character is perhaps one reason why Katniss has so many die-hard fans. A quick search on YouTube will turn up fan-made reenactments of the books made long before the official movie went into production. It’s little surprise that young women seem eager to portray Katniss. It’s a role that’s been a long time coming.