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What Fans Will Love, And What They Might Not, In 'The Hunger Games'

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in <em>The Hunger Games</em>.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games opens tonight after massive amounts of promotion, having already sold out more than 2,000 shows, according to the online ticket-seller Fandango.

The film's biggest challenge is also its greatest asset: It comes to the market with a built-in audience of devotees of the Suzanne Collins trilogy of books that inspired it. Those people will eagerly fill many of the seats on the first weekend; they will do much of the tweeting and rating that will determine how the movie fares in social media.

When those fans see the film, they will see a final product that has kept them firmly in mind. If there is one thing that can be said about the film, it is probably that it's as faithful to the book as it can possibly be while condensing the proceedings into a little under two and a half hours. That trimming turns out to be considerable, and you can certainly question which sections were compressed more or less — I'd have compressed the pre-battle stuff more and the end less, for instance — but the film has clearly been made with the goal in mind that the primary task is to faithfully interpret the book.

That doesn't mean, however, that parts of the film won't please book fans more than others. So let's make some reckless predictions.

Five Things That May Please Fans Most

1. Jennifer Lawrence. There is a downside to the casting of Jennifer Lawrence, and that's that Katniss is described as being 16 but sometimes looking no more than 14. Lawrence is skillfully made up and shot so that she does look younger than her actual age, which is 21, but she certainly doesn't look 16, let alone 14. But the upside, of course, is that she's Jennifer Lawrence. She's a remarkable actress, and the same earthy simplicity that made her acting just right for Winter's Bone works here, too.

2. The Reaping. It's both a blessing and a curse that the movie's most stirring moment — by far, I would say — comes early, at what's called "the Reaping," where the combatants are chosen. If you've read the book, you know how the scene goes down, and the conflict is so elemental and relatable that the performances of Lawrence and Willow Shields, who is excellent in the small but critical role of Katniss' young sister Prim, make it the genuinely agonizing sequence it should be.

3. The Dress Of Fire. There's an outfit Katniss wears in the runup to the Games that, on paper, I never really understood. Collins describes the effect of it very well, but I never could envision what it actually looked like. In the film, the rendition of it — actually, of the two dresses at issue — is both spectacular and oddly believable, and doesn't look any more corny than necessary. It looks like an effect, but oddly, it should.

4. The Capitol. There were places in the early sequences, off in District 12, where the gray-blue color palette, while clearly intentionally and carefully created so that not a hint of any other color remained, felt heavy-handed to me. (There wouldn't be a single red or reddish or yellow or yellowish object anywhere?) But the payoff comes in the rendering of the Capitol, which, as in the book, comes off as a parade of grotesque excesses, and which is easily contrasted from the Districts by way of its vivid purples and reds. The Games themselves, then, are blanketed in the green and brown palette of the natural world. The color-coding isn't a perfect flourish, but the way it builds the vulgarity of the wealthy Capitol is stunning.

5. The supporting characters. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, and Wes Bentley as Seneca, Donald Sutherland as President Snow, and Stanley Tucci as Caesar are all terrific. They're all true to the significance of the characters in the book(s), and Sutherland in particular has a perhaps unsurprising ability to elevate the role of a malevolent ruler with the perfect line reading.

Five Things Fans May Fight About

1. The relationships. The truth is that while The Hunger Games is a book full of plot and full of action, a tremendous amount of time is spent on Katniss' surprisingly mature internal monologue. In the book, she can be in a tree for 12 hours, and the entire time, you're learning about her through what she's thinking. In the movie, sitting in a tree is just ... sitting in a tree. As good as Lawrence is, the film doesn't succeed in developing Katniss' feelings as well as the book does, simply because you don't get to hear her describe her situation. She is a character of few words, really, which is part of what makes her such a reluctant folk hero. The depth of her genuine ambivalence about Peeta, for instance, is not evident on the screen, and her relationship with Gale — which exists in the first book largely through thinking of him when she's away from him — barely registers.

Similarly, one of the compressions in the book is that Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg) spend a surprisingly small amount of time together before their relationship comes to an end. Given the weight that that relationship needs to carry over the course of all three books, it's a shame that more time couldn't be taken with it. Of course: the film is already, as noted, almost two and a half hours long. It had to be trimmed somewhere.

2. The ending. Without spoiling the ending of the book, I think I can say that it has a feel for exhaustion that the ending of the film lacks, again because everything moves faster. The Games are, in part, about stamina, and the slow misery of them gives way in the film, particularly at the end, to a more conventionally action-sequence-ish feeling. There is a sense of stubbornness, a sense of a standoff, a sense of wearing down that comes through more completely in the book, and the movie just doesn't have that luxury.

3. Dropped pieces. Inevitably, when there's compression, there are entire pieces that are left out. There are characters you won't see in the film who appear in the book, including one very important person Katniss meets during her training. As faithful as the film has tried to be, there are significant pieces that simply aren't there at all, including one emotionally devastating element of the finale. And as in the case of Katniss' development into a folk hero, some pieces are substantially diminished or conveyed only through perhaps one brief scene that's asked to carry an entire subplot.

4. Battles. Obviously, they didn't want The Hunger Games to wind up with an R rating. Thus, a tremendous amount of violence that's present in the book — much of it against children — had to be handled very, very carefully. (And even with that level of care, everyone who notes the absurdity of this movie getting a PG-13 while Bully gets an R will be 100 percent correct.) One of the ways they've tried to do that is that battles are obscured in a series of jerky close-ups, so that you sort of get the sense of what's happening, but it's more a sensory impression of a battle than it is actually seeing a battle. That makes some of the battles seem a little undercooked, like huge buildups to what are less battle scenes than trailers for battle scenes in an imagined, and far more violent, movie. That's not to say fans want to see a lot of violence, but just that the battle scenes themselves make an oddly nonspecific impression.

5. Faithfulness to the book. I know. It's odd, right? Odd to think that some fans — certainly not all or even most, but some — might, for all their constant desire to see a faithful adaptation, leave the film feeling like they've seen the book almost exactly, as if they didn't need to see it at all. To be honest, this is the sense I had, as someone who really enjoyed the books. I felt like the film was very good, but not strictly necessary, precisely because it seemed to be made from a bit of a defensive stance, where the biggest worry was making sure fans didn't get mad. Other than the appearance of the residents of the Capitol, it's not particularly visually inventive, and while it's comforting to see that an adaptation has respected the imagery of the book, in most cases, it's faithful to the point of not adding anything you haven't seen in your head when you read the book. The adaptation, in that sense, is skilled but not quite as special as it might have been.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.