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Review: 'The Hunger Games' should fill fans' needs

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 23, 2012 - If you don't know any 13-year-olds, you may not know that “The Hunger Games” is becoming the American-girl version of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Take away the magical spells in Latin and substitute a young hunter who supports her family in a post-apocalyptic America and you have Katniss Everdeen, the rebel hero of a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins.

“The Hunger Games,” which opens in St. Louis and around the country today, is not merely a movie, but a vast media event, including magazine covers, TV appearances, Facebook pages, a national tour and more.

We probably need not worry whether the movie will be a success. In the pre-opening national tour, 7,000 fans came to see actress Jennifer Lawrence at the Mall of America alone. Projections estimate that the movie will recoup its production costs of about $100 million on opening weekend. So a more realistic question may be whether the second movie can sustain the current popularity.

The movie is directed by Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”) and stars Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) and veteran child actor Josh Hutcherson, currently also in “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.”

In the story, inspired partly by the Minotaur myth and Roman gladiator games, a future North American dystopia is run from a Capitol in the Rockies and requires an annual set of “tributes,” two each from the 12 districts in the country of Panem. The 24 tributes must fight to the death on live television, reality-game style. At the beginning of the story, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen is a hunter who supports her mother and little sister, using her superb bow-and-arrow skills, while partnering with her friend, Gale Hawthorne, who is himself a hunter.

Hunting is important because many people in their coal-mining region, District 12, are near starvation. Food is a political issue throughout the story, openly but also subtly. Panem, the name of the country, is the Latin word for bread, as in “Bread and Circuses,” and the boy who becomes Katniss’ closest companion is Peeta, pronounced like ‘pita bread’ and his family runs the local bakery.

At the very outset, Katniss volunteers to be a tribute in place of her sister, and she is then thrown together with the other tribute, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), the boy she only remembers as having once saved her from starvation and despair, years earlier.

Trilogy to become four movies

The novels by Suzanne Collins are “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” and “Mockingjay,” soon to become a franchise planned as a series of four movies based on the trilogy, all starring Jennifer Lawrence.

The series has been widely praised and massively popular. Millions of copies of the books have been sold around the world in more than two dozen languages, and the stories are considered alongside the Twilight novels and the Harry Potter series for popularity with young readers.

Virtually the entire story from the first novel is included in the 142-minute movie with only slight modifications. What is notably different is the level of violence, clearly toned down for the PG-13 rating, probably at the insistence of author Suzanne Collins, whose thumbprint is all over the film. She is also listed as screenwriter and executive producer. Collins considers herself a playwright as well as a novelist and has had extensive experience writing for children’s television.

The first surprise of the movie is how it looks: When we see Kat's coal-mining town in the opening, it looks like a dreary backwoods Depression village. Next, we get to the evil and repressive Capitol, which looks like a cross between “The Wizard of Oz” and “Triumph of the Will.” Mixing old-timey looks with futuristic technologies is always a gamble, and this movie presents a genuinely strange look unlike anything I've seen recently.

The action is good, though not amazing and seems calculated to satisfy without overwhelming all the middle-school readers who bonded with the novels. The technology in the book seems cooler than in the movie, too. Whether the lust-and-violence crowd, usually considered Hollywood’s dominant audience, will be thrilled enough may be an issue.

Another key question for the projected four-film series is probably whether the love triangle will work on the screen. Katniss Everdeen’s best-friend-maybe-more is her hunting partner Gale until she meets Peeta. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is two years older, a hard young man with a dark attitude. By contrast, Peeta seems merely a nice white-bread baker boy, but he definitely has hidden resources. Will audiences love the one Katniss will finally love?

The movie takes a chance in casting the tall and gorgeous Hemsworth as Gale against the merely clean and wholesome Josh Hutcherson as Peeta — but that is exactly the way the book works, too. Since Gale has little to do in the first book/movie, we'll need to return for the sequel to see how the relationship builds onscreen.

Will movie audiences have the patience? They’ll have to wait until November 2013 to see the second installment. “Terminator 2” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” to cite some non-girl-hero movies, did show us that a Part 2 can be even better than the beginning.

Readers' expectations

Meanwhile, how are all the 13-year-old true believers reacting? I turned to my best source, an 8th-grader, for a reaction. Hannah Ryan and her friend, Maddie Littleton, both age 13, are students at Hixson Middle School in St. Louis County. They agreed to discuss the books and movie with me, just prior to this week’s midnight opening, which they both wanted to attend, parental weather permitting.

Their ideas were not quite predictable, with the exception that they wanted the movie to stay close to the story. Hannah and Maddie are avid readers and both have read and re-read the series. They even raced each other the first time through.

Concerning the central love-triangle in the series, Hannah said, “Gale would be the obvious choice for Katniss — but Peeta is a good guy.” Maddie added, “Gale is kind of a musclehead and just wants to do what he thinks is best for Gale.”

Contrasting “The Hunger Games” to the “Twilight” series, both girls had misgivings about the slightly earlier vampire saga. They claimed their whole class was hooked on “Twilight” during 5th grade, but not now. Hannah said, “‘Twilight’ taught lots of American girls that they need boyfriends,” unlike “The Hunger Games.” Maddie said, “Katniss takes risks. ‘Twilight’ is kind of an insult really. Bella [the ‘Twilight’ protagonist] is so whiny. Katniss is independent and persistent.”

Katniss Everdeen is also bullheaded and strong, though often foolish, making her an interestingly complex young woman, who grows even more complicated across the series. Like an even earlier American heroine who became somewhat accidentally political, Scarlett O’Hara, Katniss doesn’t really understand men or romance, and her fierce love of family and survival is her sustenance.

Whether “The Hunger Games” can be as big as “Gone With the Wind” may seem nearly irrelevant these days, but 13-year-olds have longer memories than sometimes presumed. When asked what movies they would personally like to see made from earlier books, Maddie Littleton said, “I’d like to see ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ re-made but in color.” Hannah Ryan said, “Updates of Shakespeare.”

Nick Otten is assistant director in the Theater Program at Clayton High School and adjunct professor in the graduate Communications MAT Program at Webster University.