The perils of allowing a successful author to adapt their own work for the screen are demonstrated once again in this absorbing but cluttered take on Suzanne Collins’s highly regarded post-apocalyptic teen epic. This is a gripping, impressively mounted action movie – but its adherence to finicky details in the novel means that there’s not enough time to fully explore Collins’s complex world or the characters who inhabit it. Jennifer Lawrence (‘Winter’s Bone’) excels as Katniss, a teenage girl forced to take part in the televised Hunger Games, in which children from each of 12 tightly controlled districts fight to the death in tribute to the ruling Capitol. Whisked off to the big city in the company of fellow pugilist Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss finds herself completely out of her depth.
The film’s strengths are many: from the opening scenes set in the beautifully realised Depression-style District 12 to some grittily realistic, often shockingly nasty fight sequences inside the Arena. The central concept may be derivative, but as in the book, there are enough original ideas to make it feel fresh and involving.
But for all that, ‘The Hunger Games’ is an oddly muted film. Director Gary Ross’s decision to shoot much of it handheld and in tight close-up throws us right into the ring with our heroine, but tends to leaves the other characters on the periphery – a fact not helped by the propulsive but rather functional script. Similarly, his decision to avoid any sense of uplift or triumphalism may be appropriate for a story about children killing one another, but it leaves the film feeling a little one-note in its bleakness, which may harm its chances at the multiplex. Overall, this is a solid take on the material, but it could have done with a little less narrative incident and a little more cinematic sparkle.