The Capitol’s aesthetic is perfect — mid-century modern meets Louis XIV’s Versailles, with perfumed dandies circulating in front of telescreens that report the latest kills. So is the adult casting: Along with Sutherland and Bentley, we get Elizabeth Banks as the empty-headed chaperone Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson as the grizzled, sozzled Haymitch Abernathy, District 12’s lone winner and thus the mentor to year upon year of doomed tributes (which helps explain why he’s a drunk); and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the television host charged with making the frightened teenagers seem brave and interesting and sexy to a prime-time audience. Tucci is particularly excellent: In a plot that’s ultimately more mythic than political (Collins has specifically cited the Theseus story as an inspiration for her books), he plays Flickerman as the ultimate wicked fairy, all shark’s teeth and crocodile tears.
But it’s Lawrence who ultimately makes the movie work: Naturalistic, determined, withdrawn, and not necessarily likable, she nails the qualities that make Katniss such a distinctive young-adult heroine. As Peeta, the victim-hero of the saga, Hutcherson is competent enough, if not quite up to Lawrence’s standard. Only with Gale, the other corner of the love triangle, did the casting director fail the film: Hemsworth hits his marks, but he looks more like a gym-sculpted matinee idol than a plausible Appalachian hunter.
About the Games themselves and their consequences — which unspool across two more books, and thus at least two more adaptations — I will say little, except to praise the relatively restrained, PG-13 way in which the film portrays the teen-on-teen violence. A number of critics have complained that the movie isn’t bloody enough, and that its death scenes lack the horrifying impact of the book’s more visceral descriptions. This reaction strikes me as a hint of our own form of Capitol-style decadence: If you need Tarantino-esque levels of gore to find the sight of teenagers killing teenagers upsetting, then maybe the problem lies with your own desensitization to violence rather than the filmmakers’ artistic choices.
The Hunger Games will inevitably be compared to the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, but Ross’s movie is better than any of those films. Even the later Potter installments, for all their intermittent strengths, always felt more like accompaniments to the source material than complete adaptations. Whereas The Hunger Games comes closer to the standard set by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: It’s faithful to its literary source, but it stands as a complete and riveting work in its own right as well.