The Hunger Games better than the book, but it definitely ranks as one of the better movie adaptations of a novel that I have personally seen.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in District 12, the outermost district in a post-apocalyptic America that centers around the capitol city of Panem. District 12 is a poor, mining district and Katniss takes care of her mother and sister by poaching game (usually squirrels and rabbits) off of government land and selling it to fellow townspeople.
As the movie opens it's the day of the "reaping:" the day the government representative Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) comes to read the names of the boy and girl who will be selected as "tributes" to compete in the gladiatorial-style games known as The Hunger Games. As punishment for a past rebellion among the districts, the government picks two kids, between the ages of 12 and 18, from each district to fight against each other in a televised game to the death. The last one standing wins.
The older the kid the more entries they have in the games and Katniss' sister Prim, at 12, only has one entry. But against the odds Prim is chosen as tribute and Katniss frantically offers herself as tribute to save her sister. Soon she and the male tribute, Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson), are on the opulent train to the capital to be prepped for the games.
After the quick set-up for the games the film moves into two main segments: one devoted to presenting the tributes to an eager viewing public, and the games themselves.
If there is one decision that may have sealed the deal for "The Hunger Games" it is the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Only 21 and already an Academy Award nominee (for "Winter's Bone"), Lawrence does a fantastic job of embodying the Katniss so many of us have come to know through the books. The script is well crafted to show Prim's inability to survive the games, but it's Lawrence who has to convey the desperation to save her sister. Mostly it seems that casting was high up on the priority list. Woody Harrelson doesn't have a lot of time as Haymitch but he's integral in establishing the differences between Katniss and Peeta and we see through his eyes the importance of putting on a show-- something Peeta understands on an intuitive level. Elizabeth Banks is also quite good as the twittering, strangely coiffed Effie Trinket, while Lenny Kravitz gives us a confidently low-key Cinna. The only cast member I wasn't immediately sold on was Josh Hutcherson as Peeta: he's likable enough but there never seemed to be enough charisma between him and Lawrence to convey more than the obvious ambivalence in their relationship-- but I still hold out hope that future installments in the franchise will make their interactions feel more natural. I must admit to wishing that Liam Hemsworth (Gale) had been cast as Peeta as he and Lawrence had an easy comradarie with each other and I wished to see more of that. Though, truthfully, the final casting is probably be more true to the spirit of the story than what I was craving emotionally.
The hardest thing about assessing "The Hunger Games" is in deciding whether or not director Gary Ross spent enough time focusing on the right parts of the book. The distinctions between the wealthy districts and the poor are vividly portrayed, as is the palpable fear many have for their oppressive government. But those aspects are only thinly defined as the meat of the story is all about the games from the preparation stage to the final showdown. The skewering of the reality-TV culture is deft and Stanley Tucci knows just how to flash a staged, creepy grin as the host of The Hunger Games; and the behind-the-scenes view of the games (something we're not privy to in the book) is an excellent means of demonstrating the callousness of trading human lives for ratings. It's understandable that so much of the film must be devoted to the games themselves, but there's so much going on and so many characters that it's tough to ever get a detailed enough feel for the important people. I'm not sure if some of Katniss and Peeta's individual moments could have been scrapped to make more time to introduce us to the antagonists of the story-- or if it would have been a good idea anyway. Yet I wish I could have identified the secondary characters better so that the final confrontations could have had a little more depth- but that's a minor consideration.
Overall I walked away from "The Hunger Games" well satisfied with the movie adaptation. There's no way that every moment- or even every character- can be included and the audience is lucky if there are more than a few recognizable moments. This movie managed to incorporate more than a few. It should also be mentioned that, since this is a film geared to a YA audience, that Ross also did an admirable job of keeping the blood-and-guts to a minimum- no small feat when you're showing people fight to the death. Ross also chooses not too linger too much on the more wrenching moments, though Rue's death is no easier to watch than it is to read, and it never got bogged down in too much violence or angst. The romantic element of the film was probably its weakest point, but it's hard to be too critical when it was never meant to be a story of true romance to begin with. For my money "The Hunger Games" was really well done and if the standard that was set here can be maintained throughout the rest of the series, then I might even rank it higher than "Harry Potter" when it comes to book-to-film adaptations.