With The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins mines familiar dystopian ground, building around the kind of public-spectacle blood-and-circuses concept that has fueled everything from Death Race 2000 to The Running Man. Yep, there's little new under the dome of the battle arena - except the character at the center.
Katniss Everdeen is the kind of heroine too little seen in pop culture: a strong and capable young woman, utterly human in her anxieties and in no way defined by the men around her. It's easy to understand why female readers in particular have gravitated to her adventures with a unique sense of personal connection. There's one thing a film adaptation of The Hunger Games simply had to do, and that's give audiences a Katniss as gripping and powerful as Collins' creation.
That's exactly what director Gary Ross does by casting the remarkable Jennifer Lawrence. Like Lawrence's breakout Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone, Katniss is a teenager living in an impoverished area, helping support a family with an absent father and an emotionally devastated mother. Katniss volunteers to take the place of her younger sister in the ritual competition-to-the-death known as the Hunger Games, a tradition built on a punishment for a failed attempt at overthrowing the government.
The Hunger Games is a surprisingly quiet blockbuster, which plays perfectly into Lawrence's presence as an actor. She's equally convincing as the uncompromising spirit who shakes up a crowd with a demonstration of her archery prowess, and as the introvert frustrated at the idea that she has to become a likable reality-television star. The star and director both nail the beginning of the competition itself, as a terrified Katniss visibly shakes at the fate awaiting her, and the opening minutes of the Games themselves explode in an almost mute jumble of carnage.
The Hunger Games soars when Lawrence's Katniss is the focal point - and when she's not, it doesn't. The dialogue is spare, but when it comes, it's too often baldly expository. And there's the unfortunate matter of Katniss' co-participant in the Games, Peeta, with Josh Hutcherson disappearing into the background as he's unable to match Lawrence's performance in commitment to the concept.
When it works best, The Hunger Games isn't really about the Hunger Games. It's a showcase for the low-key ferocity of Jennifer Lawrence, playing the kind of hero that's always the most compelling: the kind who begins to change the world simply by doing what she believes is the only right thing to do.