The Hunger Games: The Odds are Not in Your Favor

The movie version of Suzanne Collins' best-seller misses the book's ferocity, but who cares? Fans will flock by the millions to the biggest franchise since Twilight.

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Kids fall in love with a story: it is their innocent equivalent of volcanic passion. They hear the tale from a parent, or their older siblings read a “young adult” book — read it over and over, because each new visit is like reconnecting with an old friend whose life is more fraught and much cooler than theirs.

Then somebody makes a movie version, which may be either the story’s final validation or its dead end. Faced with this huge, demanding fan base, the adaptors of a popular novel loved by the young must balance fidelity with innovation. Change nothing in the transfer of the literary to the cinematic and risk boring or baffling the general audience. Change too much and the book’s fans will cry betrayal. It’s not their old friend, looking better than ever, but a clone with a Hollywood smile.

The filmmakers entrusted with the Harry Potter and Twilight books managed to please both constituencies. Can The Hunger Games, in the movie version directed by Gary Ross, successfully navigate the crossing from page to screen? Our answer: Eh. As the film’s king baddie, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), warns, “A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.” We advise acolytes of The Hunger Games, and newcomers too, to bring only a little hope to this long (2 hours and 22 minutes), pedestrian film.

For the six of you who have somehow avoided Lionsgate’s wizardly worldwide media blitz, The Hunger Games is the first volume of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy set in Panem, a North American dystopia perhaps a hundred years in the future. In the Capital city, the foppish tyrants who run Panem stage an annual Hunger Games, a kind of Survivor Thunderdome Olympics that lasts a few weeks and is mandatory TV viewing for all citizens, Twenty-four children, two from each Panem District, are chosen at random and forced to kill each other off until only one, the Victor, remains, to be rewarded with a life of plenty. The Games’ slogan — “And may the odds be ever in your favor” — twists the Jedi “May the Force be with you” into a sick joke: the odds are 23 to 1 that a Tribute will end up dead.

In the dirt-poor coal-mining region called District 12, the sturdy 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen supports her cherished younger sister Primrose and their wan mother by foraging furtively for game; named for the flower sagittaria, also known as arrowhead, she is an expert archer. When Primrose’s name is drawn to be the District’s female Tribute, Katniss volunteers to go instead and leave behind her beau Gale. The boy chosen from District 12 is the callow but stalwart Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son who carries a secret torch for Katniss.

Back in the freshet of the Hunger Games phenomenon in 2009, our Lev Grossman called the first two books “a killer cocktail of Logan’s Run, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, reality TV and the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.” He might have added The Truman Show (for the TV cameras hidden throughout the forest environment to catch every pursuit and fatality), Oliver Twist (for the children forced by adults into criminal behavior), Romeo and Juliet (for the poison that two lovers plan to take) and, centrally, Richard Connell’s 1924 story “The Most Dangerous Game,” whose scenario of a mad Cossack trapping humans on his Caribbean island and hunting them down like big game has inspired a couple dozen Hollywood films.

(READ: Lev Grossman on The Hunger Games and Catching Fire)

The movie of The Hunger Games, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, might be expected to err on the side of fidelity, since Collins served as executive producer and helped write the screenplay. Most of the book’s set pieces are here: the fateful drawing of names by District 12 “Escort” Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks); the hazing-mentoring of Katniss and Peeta by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a Victor long since in his cups; the contestants’ televised chats with smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), which proceed like a Miss America pageant if it were shown on Bravo; Katniss’s interview with her prospective patrons, whom she startled by one-upping William Tell and shooting an arrow out of a roast pig’s mouth; and the grueling ordeal of the Games in the woods, where the deaths mount from arrow, harpoon, machete and genetically altered wasps — “tracker-jackers.”

On this killing field, Katniss and Peeta must decide whether to kill each other and win or form a wary alliance and risk dying together — for, according to the inflexible rules, only one can survive. Except that Collins is cavalier with her caveats. Now she changes the rules. Nope, changing back again. Oops, changing back to the first change. By the end, narrative twists seem like authorial dithering.

Ross, who directed young Tobey Maguire in Pleasantville (a dystopian fantasy set in the past) and Seabiscuit, shows a similar skill with the 21-year-old Lawrence, who earned an Oscar nomination in another sylvan tale of dread, Winter’s Bone. No wafer-thin waif like Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, Lawrence can be a giddy motormouth in interviews (as she was on Tuesday with David Letterman), but her screen persona in Winter’s Bone and The Burning Plain, and as Raven-Mystique in X-Men: First Class, is sullen, stolid, slablike. She could be the heroine of one of Robert Bresson’s French epics of minimalist misery — his Joan of Arc or Mouchette — and that makes her close to ideal as the too-tough-to-cry Katniss.

Hutcherson, the kid in Journey to the Center of the Earth and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, has to play Peeta as the softer of the two lead characters. In any other action film he’d be the sensitive fellow whom the real hero risks his life to save. Maybe he’ll make a stronger impression in the films that are sure to be made from the later books in the trilogy.

The novel, narrated by Katniss, visualizes District 12 as a Dorothea Lange photo-montage of Appalachian poverty, and the Capital city in District 1 as a Tea Party member’s horrified vision of downtown Manhattan night life in the swinging ’70s. The movie tries to capture some of that wretched excess: the outré couture and coiffure of the one-percenters defines their decadence. Effie is done up like a Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen time-traveling to Louis XIV’s court; the beard of Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) is as artfully manicured as the flames painted on a clown car. Think Fellini, but with less brio.

That’s the movie’s problem: it’s better at grim than gaudy, but not masterly at either. Katniss, in the flaming red dress she wears to the Games’ opening, may be “the girl on fire,” but the film rarely combusts. Ross doesn’t dare have too much fun with the ruling vultures — their excesses might seem, ugh, appealing — and good actors like Tucci and Toby Jones (as Caesar’s color commentator) have trouble locating the right tone, of precision within flamboyance. Only Banks triumphs; she plays Effie with a delicately deranged comic grace; she can turn a simple word like “room” into a tweeting, polysyllabic melody.

The film springs fitfully to life when the Games begin. Ross’s support team — 69 propmakers and five second-unit directors, including Oscar-winning auteur Steven Soderbergh — makes the giant arena a forest to die in. Amandla Sternberg adds underage winsomeness as Rue, Katniss’s ally and mascot; and the scene in which our heroine uses her archery skills to blow up a pile of booty (another arrow through a piece of fruit sets off the land mines) is smartly managed. But Ross lacks the action-director’s skill of lending heft to violent activity while hewing to PG-13 guidelines. The movie flinches when death nears; there’s no kick to the kills.

(READ: Is The Hunger Games Too Dark for Kids?)

Collins didn’t have to worry about a movie rating when she sat down to write The Hunger Games. Though meant for teen readers, the novel vibrates with a relentless passion that put the reader inside Katniss’s mind and guts. The reading experience could be rated R — not for the gore, and not for the sex (there is none), but for the ferocity of the prose. But that was a book; this is a movie, a commodity aiming for a billion-dollar worldwide gross. What Ross has created is a dutiful spectacle — as if his name had been drawn at random, and the job were not the chance of a lifetime but a slog to the death.

Put it another way: If they made books out of movies, this Hunger Games would never see print.

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