Because of assumptions, there will be little explanation to set up the plot of the film, because chances are you've already been hearing way too much about it.
Waiting for a deeply beloved novel to be translated from book to film generally has two prime emotions attached: Cynicism and optimism. Essential polar opposites in terms of mental inclination, the desire for a successful adaptation is strong, but due to the frequency of literary-to-cinematic mediocrity, pessimism largely dominates the conscience. For every one Harry Potter, there's seemingly ten Percy Jackson and the Lighting Thief: Mediocre conversions that either eliminate the elements of the source material which made it so enjoyable in effort to appeal to generic moviegoers, or attempt to replicate its predecessor in such detail that it engages no one. Though they're certainly more devoted fans than myself of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, I enjoyed the first book, and while I wasn't necessarily intrigued to read on with Catching Fire and Mockingjay, I was still fairly excited to view the film of the trilogy's namesake. Despite its limiting PG-13 rating, I was curious how director Gary Ross (along with screenwriters Billy Ray and previously mentioned original author Suzanne Collins) would depict the bleak dystopian future which these characters inhibit, along with the suspense and brutality featured in the games itself. Because of excellent casting (Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks), an acclaimed director at the helm, and the expert decision to keep Collins closely on board, my optimism toward the film far outweighed the pessimism. With extra encouragement from glowing early reviews written by critics I greatly respect, along with praise from friends who were at the 12:00am show, I entered the theater expecting the adaptation the novel truly deserved. And in large part, despite grand expectations, it mostly delivered.
The film begins with perhaps the best scene shown on screen in 2012: The Reaping. For those unfamiliar, "The Reaping" is a yearly event throughout the 12 districts of Panem, in which two teenaged tributes are chosen from each district to fight in The Hunger Games. Using shaky hand-cameras (more on this later) to immerse the audience into the cruel ceremony, Ross near silently builds suspense by building layer upon layer of fully realized detail. Capital workers in urbanized hazmat suits serve as security, a creepily glamorous emcee grossly misunderstanding the solemn tone of the event, the ironic wonder of children in viewing the Capital's futuristic technology, citizens of the district in more relief than pity when tributes are chosen. Most of these details are lingered on for only short moments, but blended together form an intriguing atmosphere, which could only be described as the dystopian cousin of Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery. It's an incredible feat by the director, complimented with stellar performances by the actors. While the film doesn't necessarily reach this peak again in terms of quality, it's certainly an outstanding place to start.
Like the Reaping scene, although to a slightly lesser effect, early scenes of the film set in District 12 work due to Ross's ability to capture the urban grimescape Katniss, and other citizens, inhabit. Rather than creating what we might consider to be a generic squalid dystopian town, we are instead met with landmarks disturbingly familiar: A barely fictionalized decaying suburbia. Buildings and homes exist, but are horribly run down. The same applies to a marketplace which Katniss frequents. Sadly, this supposed dystopia could exist in our modern day world, and probably does. By waiting to use CGI until reaching the Capital, we no longer exist in true heightened fiction, but rather a frighteningly realistic nightmare. Also, by waiting to use CGI until the Capital is introduced, we obtain the same sensory overload Katniss and Peeta have when entering themselves to the colorful city. Both exist in visual stark contrast to the other.
With such an excellent beginning, I was slightly surprised to discover that the majority, if not all of the film's problems, were in capturing the games themselves. With the restrictive, yet necessary PG-13 rating, no amount of acting could replicate the loss of the novel's violent brutality in favor of average blockbuster action. We are watching teenagers, and even at one point a 12 year old, be savagely massacred, but due to an inability to show the necessary gore, we could essentially be watching any recent action film with a teenaged lead. Also to be noted is Ross's reliance on using "shaky cam" methods to shoot action. While the style worked during the Reaping sequence to essentially force the audience to become bystanders in the face of cynical cruelty, during fights, it's impossible to figure out what's going on. For example, during the climatic final battle, I thought Katniss stabbed her ally by mistake before realizing what had happened. Though in this style it's impossible to see any blood, which I suppose was the point, it betrays the novel in how violence is portrayed. In fact, during certain sequences the film almost glamorizes the violence it wishes to portray negatively. When the games drone on and on, violence grows repetitive, and I desired any possible cutaway back to the intriguing outside world of Panem.
Despite problems showing the Hunger Games themselves, Ross has, in general, constructed a deserving adaptation due to excellent performances and his own direction. While he still has two more films to convince me that this could be the new Harry Potter, he's certainly proven the series is on a far higher pedigree than others of its young-adult book-to-film companions, and I'm certainly interested to see what happens next in the world of Panem.