The time has come, the anticipation is over and the verdict is in... Gary Ross gets The Hunger Games right. Under the extremely watchful eye of author Suzanne Collins, who stands as a producer and co-writer of the film, Ross balanced a fine line of keeping faithful to the book while cutting it down to fit a movie format. In the end, his smart changes of the plot and dialogue make it interesting and new for the fans who know can quote the book from beginning to end, while not hurting Collins' story we love so dearly. He perfectly adapts that story for the screen while also visually letting Collins' dark and creative world speak for itself. Both elements make this one of the best book-to-film adaptations in recent times.
For the rare few that are unfamiliar with this disturbing tale, the dystopian futuristic setting will be enough to whisk you into the film. After what we know as "The Dark Days", the land of North America has become the totalitarian nation of Panem. The 12 districts that make up the country are all run by the lavish and idealistic Capitol, where the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) resides. To remind Panem of it's control, the Capitol stages an annual Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death between 24 unlucky 12 to 18-year-olds, chosen at random from their districts. The Games are stuck somewhere between the past and the future as they are a cross between Ancient Rome and American Idol, with each contestant getting pampered and paraded around a press junket like dolls, just before they are sent in to fight to the death.
The lives of people in Panem get more and more impoverished the further their district is from the Capitol, leaving the residents of District 12 in a state similar to that of The Great Depression. With everyone almost always starving for bread crumbs, our protagonist, the 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen illegally hunts every weekend with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) in order to provide for her depressed mother and innocent 12-year-old sister, Prim. When Prim is chosen as this year's "tribute" to the games, Katniss bravely volunteers on her behalf and is put with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) on the train to the Capitol almost immediately. Through the constant thrill and excitement of Katniss and Peeta's adventure, and the subtle and conflicting love story between them, there is always that underlying sinister tone of their circumstances that creeps up on you.
Part of what made The Hunger Games such an enjoyable read was it's constant suspense and action and Ross beautifully pulls these aspects out of the book, making it look easy. His swift, gritty camera movement and eerie accompanying score give the film an unexpected rawness and reality to it, while the futuristic-meets-retro costumes and sets of the capitol bring out the abstract fantastical elements of the book.
Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) perfectly embodies the precocious but simultaneously terrified Katniss, who was forced to grow up quickly back in District 12, but can't escape her vulnerability when treated like a pawn. Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) was a great choice for the incredibly sweet and naïve Peeta -- Katniss's polar opposite, while Australian actor Liam Hemsworth (The Last Song) brings out the strength and intensity of Gale. Woody Harrelson is funny and dead-on as the always-drunk but wise mentor of Peeta and Katniss, Haymitch. Elizabeth Banks is also fantastic in her small but memorable role as Effie, the pink-haired Capitol escort for the District 12 Tributes. Every casting choice, as you can see, was chosen flawlessly to bring out Collins' intricate and imaginative characters.
With Collins' writing that relates to our day and age, she makes the story enjoyable to adults as well as kids, and with Ross' skillful direction, he makes the film enjoyable for strangers to the novel as well as fans. Though the ending is a little rushed, and small sub-plots and scenes have obviously been cut from the novel, Ross makes this legendary story stand on it's own as a powerful film, separate from the book. And for once, a film as anticipated as The Hunger Games lives up to its impossibly high expectations.