I suppose it’s unfair to compare The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen to Twilight’s Bella Swan, but it’s also inevitable. Both are the heroine narrators of a wildly popular teen trilogy. Both are introduced to sinister worlds far away from their families and forced to grow up quickly. Both are involved in a love triangle of sorts. But the similarities end there.
While Bella is awkward and accident prone (vampire Edward is positively charmed by her clumsiness), Katniss is strong of body and mind. While Bella is obsessed with a boy and willing to abandon her family (and her very humanity) to be with him, Katniss is obsessed with taking care of her own family and staying alive.
I’ve complained many times that Bella is not a character I want young girls looking up to. Katniss, on the other hand, is a heroine I would like to babysit America’s collective tween daughter.
The book The Hunger Games—about a ruling class (“the Capitol”) that keeps its commoners in line by mounting an elaborate yearly competition that pits teens against each other in a battle to the death—has become a world-wide phenomenon. I just started reading it a few days ago myself and I can already see why: Author Suzanne Collins has created a richly imaginative dystopian world that is filled with eccentricity, humor, adventure, and genuine horror.
The book is in good hands with director Gary Ross, a consummate pro, although it might’ve been interesting to see it interpreted by a true visionary along the lines of Terry Gilliam or Quentin Tarantino. Nonetheless, what we have here is expertly mounted mainstream entertainment that feels like just what it is—a compulsive page-turner in movie form.
It starts, of course, with Katniss, embodied to perfection by Jennifer Lawrence. The minute I began reading the book I could see why Lawrence had been cast. Katniss has a lot in common with Ree, the gritty character Lawrence played in Winter’s Bone: She’s tough, unsentimental, secretly loving, but she keeps her emotions in check, knowing that they are her enemy in the field of battle.
Without giving away too much of the plot—although everyone and their grandma already knows it at this point—it is Katniss’s beloved baby sister Primrose who is chosen for the Hunger Games—Katniss volunteers to take her place. The boy chosen from her district is the sweet and solid Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who might seem too good to possibly win such a brutal competition were he not such a canny player of the PR game. The third member of the love triangle is Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’s hunky hunting partner (Katniss is so not boy-crazy, she doesn’t even notice what a babe she’s hunting alongside). That love triangle, or lack thereof, is an object-lesson in how different The Hunger Games is from Twilight. Katniss is not defined by the boys in her life—in fact, we’re never totally clear how she feels about them.
The Capitol is populated by all manner of peacocks, drunks, and snakes: There’s the hostess Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a kind of Real Housewife of the Capitol who wears colorful wigs that match her outlandish dresses. There’s the young impresario Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, sporting a fabulously intricate beard), who is so obsessed with putting on a good show he’s become inured to the brutality he’s mounting (the games are set in an enclosed world that Seneca can manipulate—if things get too dull he can create a forest fire or conjure a mountain beast). There’s the unctuous talk show host played by Stanley Tucci (who else?) with a creepy rictus of false cheer. Possibly best of all is Woody Harrelson as the dissolute Haymitch Abernathy (these names!), a rare winner from Katniss and Peeta’s District 12, who is supposed to mentor his young charges, if only he can put down his wine and lose his contemptuous sneer. Each performance achieves that movie casting nirvana—you can’t imagine anyone else playing the role.
There’s been lots of talk about the dialed-down violence in The Hunger Games movie (as compared to the book). Yes, the killings are swift, mostly bloodless, and often off-camera, in order to snag that all-important PG-13 rating. But when a character we’ve grown to love dies in Katniss’s arms, you can hardly accuse Ross of pulling his punches.
While the film doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, per se, it does leave you eager for more (like Twilight, the trilogy is to be turned into four films). For me, only one question remains: Do I stay strong and finish the first book or cheat and go straight to book two, Catching Fire, to see what happens next? Yeah, I think we all know the answer to that.