Just as brave and loyal Katniss Everdeen is the heart of the wildly popular series of “Hunger Games” novels by Suzanne Collins, Jennifer Lawrence is the heart of this faithful adaptation. Director Gary Ross clearly understands the book and what makes its story of a dystopian future world where teenagers battle to the death on a grim reality show so compelling.
Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the small independent film “Winter’s Bone,” plays Katniss, who cares for her widowed mother and tender-hearted young sister Prim (Willow Shields) in District 12, a poor mining community that is a part of Panem, the post-apocalyptic totalitarian state that encompasses what is now North America.
Lawrence gives a thoughtful, nuanced performance, showing us the conflicts Katniss feels as she adapts to her new challenges, some of which require her to be even tougher and more stoic than she was before but some that require her to unlock feelings her survival had previously required her to keep secret even from herself. She has a small dimple near the lower corner of her mouth that transforms her face when she smiles, and she uses it to show us Katniss’ heart as well as her determination.
Panem has an annual “reaping” where a boy and a girl are selected from each district to compete in the “Hunger Games,” a gruesome spectacle the citizens are forced to pretend to enjoy as entertainment. When Prim’s name is called, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The other “tribute” from District 12 is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the son of a baker.
They are taken to the Capital City and given luxurious accommodations while they prepare for the Games by trying to win sponsors (who can provide them with supplies) and getting advice from kind-hearted stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and previous District 12 champion Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a cynical man who cannot face training another pair of doomed teenagers without getting drunk. “Embrace the probability of your imminent death and know in your heart that there is nothing I can do to save you,” he tells them. But as he gets to know Katniss, he cannot help but admire her skill as an archer and he begins to care enough to give her some guidance.
The preliminary activities include an Olympic-style opening parade and the appearance on a gruesome simulacrum of a talk show, where the “tributes” pretend that they are excited and proud to be participating in the Games. Stanley Tucci is a standout as the oily host with a blue pompadour and a laugh as fake as his teeth.
The preparation stage also gives the participants a chance to get a look at the competition, including some who have spent their lives training in hand-to-hand combat and survival skills. And Katniss gets a chance to talk to Peeta, who tells her that he does not expect to win, but he wants to prove something. “If I’m going to die, I want to still be me.”
The “tributes” are released into the woods knowing that in two weeks 23 of them will be dead. There are some wary and by definition temporary alliances between contestants and at first Katniss thinks that Peeta is helping the others track her down and kill her. She meets the tiny but spirited and clever Rue (a memorable Amandla Stenberg), who saves her life. The days go by, cannons firing to mark the deaths of the participants, and as there are fewer and fewer left, it is harder to stay alive.
Production designer Philip Messina provides some striking visuals, particularly in the Capital City, but more important is the way the design helps shape the story, from the grimy poverty of District 12 to the heightened artificiality of the Capital City, the ultra high-tech control center, and the sometimes deceptive naturalism of the forest where the Games take place. The settings frame the story well and the action scenes are exciting, even visceral. And Lawrence keeps pulling us into the story, making its most outlandish elements feel real and meaningful.
Parents should know that this is a dystopic story about a brutal fascistic society where teenagers engage in gladiator-style combat to the death with constant peril and characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, adult character abuses alcohol, some mild language, and a teen kiss.
Family discussion: What does the hallucination tell you about Katniss? What does Peeta mean about staying himself and how does he do that? What is the best advice Katniss receives? How are Cinna, Effie, and Haymitch different in the ways they try to help Katniss and Peeta?
If you like this, try: the trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins