"The Hunger Games" shoots a box office and critical bulls-eye

Billed as the movie event of the year, “The Hunger Games” is a visceral, violent film that outshines its teen-targeting counterparts.

“The Hunger Games” took in $155 million last weekend — the third best movie opening ever. The hype surrounding the film, based on a bestselling novel by Suzanne Collins, has skyrocketed, as fans waited around the block to attend midnight screenings bedecked in full costume. Even at UNC, fans took part in their own Hunger Games involving water balloons and markers last Friday. Unquestionably, the games have become a phenomenon.

The book is now an essential cornerstone in the teenage cultural psyche, alongside Twilight and Harry Potter. The novel has spent three years on the New York Times bestseller list, and there are more than 26 million copies of the work, alongside its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay, in print worldwide. For the movie, eager anticipation would be an understatement.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is an inhabitant of Panem, a futuristic world that was once America. The ruling Capitol attempts to keep its 12 districts in check by organizing a yearly, televised battle: The Hunger Games. Two teenagers from each of the 12 districts are brought to fight each other to the death until one is victorious. When Prim, Katniss’ sister, is chosen at random to enter the games, Katniss volunteers herself as tribute.

For a teen franchise, you’d expect “The Hunger Games” to be a clear-cut drama, teeming with romance and an indie-rock soundtrack. But director Gary Ross delivers dystopia with shaky camerawork throughout, mirroring Katniss’ turbulent journey. The scenery of North Carolina, where the film was shot, is lush against the horrors of the games themselves.

Jennifer Lawrence shines as the hardened-faced, fierce heroine. The relationship between Katniss and her fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) treads the tightrope between chemistry and awkwardness perfectly. Of the support, Stanley Tucci is a brilliantly menacing Caesar , the television presenter who eggs on the contestants.

The romance element of the film is overplayed, as are its idealistic views of morality. Katniss appears faultless in a way we know she is incapable of being, but her strength of character is one sorely lacking in Hollywood blockbusters of late. The plot is fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat stuff, and it’s satisfying conclusion leaves you hungry for more. Its sequel, “Catching Fire,” is set to drop in 2013.

Adaptations are everywhere in Hollywood, and it’s often difficult to translate the essence of what makes a book popular to the big screen. However, “The Hunger Games” sticks closely to its book, probably because Collins penned the screenplay herself. The movie captures the uneasy dystopia of the novel, extending it beyond the teenage mindset of Katniss in creating a visual world of terror.

The film’s cinematography mirrors self-consciously the “big brother” aspect of the book. The act of watching is obvious as the audience takes on the role of the Panem viewer, witnessing but helpless to stop the violence.

Like Japanese horror film “Battle Royale,” the film exploits graphic violence between innocent children to paint a society so vile that it would encourage its youngest members to kill each other for survival, or worse, glory.

Before the games, Gale tells Katniss that if people stopped watching, there would be no competition. Indeed, “The Hunger Games” is a vision on the future of reality television, the extent to which we are watched and limits of what we are willing to watch.

An intelligent blockbuster, “The Hunger Games” is thrilling and thought-provoking in equal measure. What it lacks in character development it makes up for in spades with its action, motivated by questions of the nature of humanity. Like its heroine with a penchant for archery, the film appears to have shot both an artistic and financial bulls-eye.

The Hunger Games
Dive verdict: 4 of 5 stars

Contact the Diversions Editor at diversions@dailytarheel.com.

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