In what was once North America, a teenage boy and girl are selected from each of the 12 districts that make up the fascist state of Panem to compete in the vicious Hunger Games. The Games, a punishment to the districts for past rebellion and a deterrent for future ones, is a yearly endeavor that the sheltered, shallow citizens of Panem's Capitol watch with great interest. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a talented hunter from the poverty-stricken District 12, does the unthinkable and volunteers to save her younger sister Prim, who's name is selected, from certain doom. She joins fellow tribute Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson) in a fantastic journey to the Capitol along with mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and the eccentric Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). As the games draw near, Katniss is forced to rely on her instincts and will to survive. But if she is to win the Games and make it home to her sister, she will have to make choices that will test her morality, humanity, and love.
Rarely does a film do its written counterpart justice, and The Hunger Games is no exception - in fact, that is why the direction Gary Ross takes is so important. He leaves just enough out of the book to enthrall viewers who are not familiar with the world of Panem (this also cuts down on film time by quite a bit), but also keeps the narrative together and stays true enough to the novel to keep fans of the franchise pleased.
Jennifer Lawrence plays the part of Katniss Everdeen with a down-to-earth, shaky honesty, something she exemplified in critically acclaimed Winter's Bone. Every conversation she has, every decision she makes is convincing, even if the "star-crossed lovers" angle she and Josh Hutcherson is not fleshed out nearly as well as it should be.
Woody Harrelson quietly carries Katniss and Peeta through the Games as Haymitch Abernathy, the oft-drunk and unreliable mentor responsible for obtaining sponsors for the combatants of District 12. Harrelson is a smart selection for the role as the film version of Haymitch is much kinder and responsible, and it helps to carry the movie more quickly to its final destination.
But perhaps the most underrated star of the film is Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, as the stylist whom Katniss confides in. Kravitz quietly and powerfully plays the small but important role, as her perfectly portrays Cinna's optimism and confidence in his subject's chances to win.
The cinematography is stunning, as Ross worked the PG-13 rating to the best of his abilities, using blurred and hurried cameras to seize the brutal nature of the Hunger Games without relying on gore to make his point. The film, though well-acted and directed, was never sure of itself. It balanced well between bleak perspectives and optimistic outlooks, and it couldn't quite settle into a consistent tone; but, much like the tributes' feelings themselves, perhaps it's for the best. Without declaring its tone, The Hunger Games flows nicely along with Katniss's ups and downs and allows the viewer to feel the roller coaster of emotions that each of the characters experiences.
In the end, the film deserves a three star rating out of four. All the elements are there for the movie to be thoroughly enjoyable and gripping, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat wishing to see more of Katniss and her adventures. Though some might think of The Hunger Games as an American conversion of the much bloodier Japanese cult-classic Battle Royale, I don't think the comparison is fair as each is great in its own right. The Hunger Games succeeds as the start to a fantastic series, and I can't wait for the next two installments in the newest series to sweep the hearts of young Americans.