Jennifer Lawrence is clearly the star of the show, but underrated Josh Hutcherson delivers perhaps the best performance of his budding career. Photo courtesy Lionsgate

There’s something to be said for a movie that takes a well-done book and transfers it to the big screen almost flawlessly. When the basis for a film is so solid, why would you go out of your way to put some more pizzazz on it? How’s that saying go? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? If you didn’t catch my segue there, the Hunger Games does just that.

Anytime  a movie gets this much hype and has lines of teenage girls itching to see the premiere, anyone’s natural instinct is probably skepticism. The crowds that the midnight premieres of the first installment of Suzanne Collin’s literary series garnered drew numerous parallels to that of the Twilight series…which flat out stunk. No fear, these ‘Hunger Games’ are a different game entirely.

In case you aren’t familiar with the plot, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson star as Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, two teenagers living in Post-apocalyptic North America that now must face a game of life and death. Every year two youngsters are plucked from their “District” in the new country of Panem to come to the Capitol and compete in a fight-to-the-death, gladiator-like battle against fellow teenagers. When Katniss’ (Lawrence) sister’s name is called, Katniss quickly volunteers to take her place. Then Peeta Mellark is called and District 12 has their “tributes”. Now the two must face 22 enemies in addition to one another.

The movie also boasts an impressive supporting cast. Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland all play prominent roles in a film that features a number of characters without concerning you too much with their names. Your teenage daughter may also recognize Liam Hemsworth, actor and boyfriend of pop sensation Miley Cyrus, who plays Katniss’ childhood friend and confidant, Gale.

The movie itself, like I said, is executed with very few blemishes along the way. In fact the first hour or so of its cumbersome 142 minute runtime is, dare I say it, almost perfect. Like any book transferred to film, the movie takes some liberties with the initial plot. But in the case of The Hunger Games, the edits are small and not all too crucial in the beginning. Only the nit-pickiest of nit-pickers will gripe over them.

Just like the novel, this movie keeps you fully engrossed for the duration. Jennifer Lawrence is fine as the film’s main character, but Josh Hutcherson and Woody Harrelson truly steal the show. Hutcherson, known primarily for his work in sillier kid-oriented movies before now,  delivers a performance with such command it almost does a disservice to the “real” Peeta Mellark who is actually supposed to be shy and visibly over his head.

Once his character is introduced, Woody Harrelson steals the show as the bumbling yet kind-hearted alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy. Photo courtesy Lionsgate

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Banks is rather forgettable as Effie Trinket, District 12’s ‘Hunger Games’ liaison of sorts. I’m usually a big fan of Banks but her artificial acting and heavy ‘Capitol’ makeup ultimately means anyone could have played her role. Banks clearly is there more so to add “name power” to the cast.

The plot moves along fairly well and is only interrupted by the commentary breaks from Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith (imagine an overly flamboyant Al Michaels and John Madden) who have to catch the audience up on the science fiction-like aspects of this strange, new world. This eventually gets annoying but you can understand why the film feels like it has to be done. It just could’ve been done better.

My one other problem with the movie was its sensitivity of sorts. Suzanne Collins went through a lot of hard work to create a cold and brutish world ruled by a totalitarian government and the film’s PG-13 rating means it could’ve done more visually to paint this image for you. Despite playing a game where 24 teenagers must try to murder each other with crude weaponry, the action sequences are surprisingly docile and could easily have been placed on network television.

In terms of how well the movie pays homage to the book, I would be inclined to say it does this FAIRLY well. Only as it gets towards the end does the movie skip over some critical plot points and by then you are already thoroughly satisfied. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that the movie actually EXPANDS on the plot set forth by Collins in the novel. The characters of President Snow and Seneca Craine (played by Sutherland and Wes Bentley) have a much more prominent role than they did in the book as they show just how controlling an autocratic society can be.

As a whole, the ‘Hunger Games’ is a solid piece of work. Gary Ross did an incredible job writing and directing the film. It also didn’t hurt that he had the original author helping on the screenplay. For someone who has the likes of ‘Big’, ‘Pleasantville’, and ‘Seabiscuit’ under his belt, Ross certainly has put out another piece he can proudly display on the fireplace mantle. The ‘Hunger Games’ leaves you thoroughly entertained and itching for the next one to come out. And believe me, the box office numbers  coming out mean there WILL be another one.

But that’s neither here nor there. This first movie is what is in front of us and it’s well worth whatever ridiculous IMAX, 3D, DLP, Dolby Digital price of admission your local theater can scam you for. So don’t let the hordes of screaming adolescents deter you. If you want to give The Hunger Games a shot, the odds ARE in your favor. FINAL GRADE: A-

When Bryan isn’t reviewing movies, he is on Twitter! Follow him @bclienesch.

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