Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Let the Games begin!

Finally, fans' hunger for hotly anticipated action film

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NEW YORK — Starved for good entertainment? The Hunger Games may hit the spot, despite a few reservations: One, Jennifer Lawrence is about six years older than Katniss Everdeen, the gutsy teen heroine of Suzanne Collins’ dystopic bestseller. Two, the impoverished, undernourished, dentally deprived denizens of District 12 — which will send Katniss and her pal Peeta to battle for their lives in the Capitol of their oppressive state — look like escapees from a J. Crew catalog.

Three, there are references that readers of the first in the Games trilogy will find unfamiliar, because they come out of subsequent books.

And you know what? None of this will make a bit of difference.

"I don't even know why we're still doing press," actor Stanley Tucci said last week, his point being that the film doesn't need any help: After more than 100 weeks on the bestseller lists, The Hunger Games -- which imagines a country in which teenage "tributes" are randomly chosen to fight to the death -- has a huge fan base itching to get at the movie.

Collins' adventure trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay) is among the most successful young-adult novels ever, Mockingjay having sold more than 450,000 copies in its first week of publication. Scholastic -- which, coincidentally, was the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books -- has reaped a whirlwind of sales. And there's simply no reason to think that the first in this planned three-film adaptation won't make a killing, if you'll excuse the pun.

There is, after all, a considerable amount of violence in The Hunger Games, just as there is in the books; director Gary Ross, working with Collins, has remained faithful to the story, with some small exceptions (Seneca the Gamesmaker, for instance, played by Wes Bentley, isn't mentioned by name until Book 2), including the strapping Lawrence, 21, playing the skinny Katniss, 15. But Ross was full of confidence.

"She embodies so many qualities that are spot-on," he said of his actress. "The self-assurance. She doesn't filter anything. She's completely candid. When you meet her, she embodies so much of what the character is. And Suzanne was adamant about the choice, and you can't get a better barometer than that."

You also can't get a riper political metaphor than The Hunger Games, which imagines a totalitarian state in which the life-and-death struggle of innocents is played out like a televised Circus Maximus for the entertainment -- and psychological control -- of an oppressed and fearful population.

"Absolutely," said the film's producer, Nina Jacobson, former head of production for Disney, where she made films like The Sixth Sense. Jacobson said the "glossy sheen" of so much contemporary entertainment, juxtaposed with the economic gap between the one per cent and the other 99, "is what makes this book so relevant, and why it's resonated so much."

She added that Collins was inspired to write her 2008 novel by the weird convergence of the Iraq War and American Idol, and since then, "the social inequality that's highlighted in the book has become an even bigger part of the national dialogue."

"Suzanne saw how entertainment evolves into spectacle," Ross said, "and how spectacle is used as an instrument of political manipulation. We're not there yet, but it's not hard to imagine a world where we could be."

A mash-up of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game and TV's Survivor, Ross's The Hunger Games departs from Collins' format enough to provide a little wider perspective. Written in first-person present tense, the novel only lets the reader know what Katniss knows, as she knows it (which is one reason Stephen King accused the book of "authorial laziness"). The movie, conversely, shows Katniss and her fight for survival in the "arena" against better-trained and better-armed opponents, but also how she's being viewed in the Capitol, a mix of the Emerald City and A Clockwork Orange.

"I think it makes it more interesting for fans, to have something they didn't experience in the book in the film," said Bentley, "the way the film cuts away and we see people in the Capitol reacting to all the things she's doing in the arena."

What readers will also be eager to see -- in addition to Katniss kicking butt -- is how Ross and Co. decided to portray the Capitol and its characters, such as Tucci's blue-haired TV host, Caesar Flickerman.

"My first question was, 'How far do you want to take this?'" said Lenny Kravitz, who plays Katniss' stylist, Cinna. "I mean, I could be taking it all the way. I was thinking Tom Ford meets Yves St. Laurent, really great creative people. Not outrageous, more classic -- not John Galliano. We tried to pull Cinna back -- unlike Wes's character, or Effie. Effie is like Joel Grey in Cabaret meets Marie Antoinette meets Vivienne Westwood meets kabuki theatre."

Effie, the Capitol-appointed caretaker of Katiss and Peeta, is played by a virtually unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks, who admits that Effie is, perhaps, a bit outré. "But I never wanted her to be a clown or a caricature," she said. "Gary is good at setting those limits."

As for Ross? He's prepping for the next installment in the Games saga, even if he's not exactly ready for it either. "They've asked me to do it, and I'm beginning that process," he said. "But I only finished this one a few days ago. So it's hard for me to imagine the next one."


The Hunger Games opens tomorrow.

-- Newsday

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2012 E8

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