Jennifer Lawrence shines as “The Girl on Fire”

My review was originally published Monday by my school newspaper, The Daily Titan.

Katniss Everdeen captures the audience with her wit, charm and archery skills.

Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence, last year’s Academy Award nominee for best actress in Winter’s Bone) is a 16-year-old girl living in District 12 in a post-apocalyptic America called Panem, perhaps a few centuries from now. Panem is comprised of 12 districts serving the Capitol by producing labor, food and resources.

These districts are forced to offer tributes (one boy and one girl from each district) to compete in a Gladiator-style game where teens fight to the death. Katniss gets caught up in these Hunger Games and must use her hunting skills to survive.

The Hunger Games (Lionsgate, PG-13), directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) was adapted from Suzanne Collins’ bestseller and had a budget of $78 million. It made twice that in its first weekend, pocketing $152 million from America’s screaming teens, securing its place as North America’s third-best opening weekend of all time. That is a success in any Hollywood executive’s book (aka wallet), unlike Disney’s John Carter box office flop. (Update: As of April 6 it has made $260 million.)

The film catches the novel’s tone and its minimalist style works. For example, during the reaping scene (where Katniss is chosen to compete in the games), the stark depression of the village is emphasized by no soundtrack and awkward microphone interference as Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) relays the government’s hollow promises.

But sometimes the minimalist style is too minimal. A highly emotional film needs an epic soundtrack to complement it. While the score, by James Newton Howard (Green Lantern), is excellent, it lacks a dramatic orchestration that has become a staple in action dramas like Harry Potter and Star Wars.

The two male protagonists, Gale Hawthorne and Peeta Mellark, do well in their roles. Liam Hemsworth (The Last Song) perfectly matches Gale’s passion. As the games begin, Gale is not watching them on TV like every other citizen of Panem, but is instead sulking in the woods.

Josh Hutcherson does reasonably well as Peeta, but he loses his wimpy demeanor and underdog qualities present in the novel.

Peeta has a wish to defeat the Capitol, saying, “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.”

Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bently) had the film’s second-greatest acting (after Katniss). His beard alone is amazing, but his perspective in the game’s “control room” provides context to what is really happening in the Hunger Games.

Part of the novel’s attraction as a film adaptation are its cameras and Survivor-esque reality TV feel.

But curiously, the film did not use extensive camera footage from the hidden cameras in the arena. A more active presence would have been more powerful. For example, showing Katniss’ family and Gale’s reaction to when she was stuck in the tree next to a hidden camera.

Musician Lenny Kravitz tried too hard to be memorable as Cinna, Katniss’ stylist, but Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada) is a brilliant Caesar Flickerman, a comedic talk show host in the likes of Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno.

Haymitch Abernathy’s transformation to the screen is the film’s biggest disappointment. Woody Harrelson (Zombieland) is decent, but he failed in portraying Haymitch’s personality. First of all, Haymitch is drunk, immature and violent. In the film, he is level-headed at times and sobers up.

There are plans to produce the rest of the trilogy. In one of the few scenes not contained in the novel, one of the districts starts a riot. This foreshadowing gives more context to the revolts in the next novel, Catching Fire.

The Hunger Games provides a good foundation, and with some improvement in the sequels, the film series could do justice to its literary counterpart.

The verdict: Katniss shines beautifully. As Caesar Flickerman says, “Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire!”

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