Will 'Hunger Games' satisfy book's fans?

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen and Liam Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen and Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne in "The Hunger Games." Photo Credit: Lionsgate

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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.

Eating up 'Hunger'

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 1 percent and the other 99, "is what makes this book so relevant, and why it's resonated so much."

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Collins' inspiration

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' "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 also will be eager to see -- in addition to Katniss kicking butt -- is how Ross and Company 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' character, or Effie. Effie is like Joel Grey in 'Cabaret' meets Marie Antoinette meets Vivian Westwood meets kabuki theater."

Effie, the Capitol-appointed caretaker of Katniss and Peeta, is played by a virtually unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks, who admits that Effie is, perhaps, a bit outre. "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."

 

Who are the players in 'The Hunger Games'?

 

BY JOHN ANDERSON, Special to Newsday

To nonbelievers, the featured players in "The Hunger Games" may sound like they have the worst names in the history of cast lists (and they do). Nevertheless, the following are the principals in Suzanne Collins' allegorical drama, in which the "tributes" from the 12 districts of Panem will assemble in the Capitol, meet various colorful characters and fight to the death.

KATNISS EVERDEEN (Jennifer Lawrence) -- With her father dead and her mother an emotional train wreck, she's had to be sister and mother to her younger sister, Primrose. So when Prim is chosen in the Hunger Games lottery, Katniss volunteers to go in her place. The Powers That Be love pluck. And Katniss has plenty.

PEETA MELLARK (Josh Hutcherson) -- The baker's son who becomes Katniss' fellow District 12 tribute, he once threw Katniss a loaf of bread when she was starving, so she thinks of him fondly. But when the games begin, he allies himself with the cutthroats of District 2. So is he a good guy, or bad?

HAYMITCH (Woody Harrelson) -- The only winner of the Hunger Games that District 12 ever produced, he becomes "mentor" to Katniss and Peeta. He's trained a lot of dead competitors at the games, which has turned him into a cynical drunk. But in Katniss and Peeta he sees a chance for something great.

CINNA (Lenny Kravitz) -- Katniss' "stylist," which is a lot more important than it sounds: How she's perceived by the populace of the Capitol will determine her number of sponsors, which will, in turn, determine life vs. death when the games get ugly. Cinna, fortunately, is on Katniss' side.

GALE HAWTHORNE (Liam Hemsworth) -- Katniss' sort-of best friend back home, he does not see much action, but his presence haunts the story.

EFFIE TRINKET (Elizabeth Banks) -- Looking like a human fruit salad, Effie represents, visually and morally, the general soullessness of Panem, although she's really not all bad.

CATO (Alexander Ludwig) -- The "ruthless killing machine" from District 2, he presents the greatest danger to Peeta and Katniss, followed closely by ...

CLOVE (Isabelle Fuhrman) -- She's pretty deadly with a knife.

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