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FILM REVIEW: The Hunger Games

"When I read it, I thought it had the possibility to be the most influential American film since I can't remember. What we're dealing with is the destroyed fabric of a once-upon-a-time empire. And the empire is obviously here."

That is the august Donald Sutherland speaking with The Telegraph about The Hunger Games and Lord, I wish he was right.

Full disclosure, I'm a fan. I've read the series. It contains post-apocalyptic action, rebellious teens and mutant half-breeds and I was powerless to resist. And the heroine, Katniss, is the anti-Bella. Sure she's caught in a love triangle between Peeta , the white-bread baker boy, and Gale, the moody-loner-keeping-the-home-fires-burning. But it was Katniss' voice that puts the series head and shoulders above Bella's tale of self-sacrifice. This is a young woman who fights for herself and her family. Yes, in the few spare moments when she's not running for her life or avoiding tracker jackers, she ponders her choices. But survival is the priority.

 Liam Hemsworth stars as Gale Hawthorne in the film. (Alliance Films)

Yet, now, as the blockbuster book is set to become the biggest film of the season, all I can see are the missed opportunities. For fans that know the material, it's fine. In the words of Farmer Hoggett "That'll do." But to quote another film, "It could have been a contender."

At this moment in history, with the up-to-the-minute themes of the rich and the poor, the 1-per-centers, and our world being filtered through reality TV, The Hunger Games had the potential make a lot of people uneasy.

Just for a moment imagine what a Paul Greengrass or Kathryn Bigelow could have done with this. (Turns out director Steven Soderbergh did some second unit directing on a small riot scene -- a scene that is one of the few moments in which the movie approaches the potential of the books.)

Instead, producers turned to Gary Ross: the master of movies that settle over you like a warm blanket just out of the dryer. Remember, he is the writer of Big, and director of Seabiscuit and Dave.

This is the man they entrusted with author Suzanne Collins' dark dystopian vision. Why? Because Ross delivers a family-friendly, PG-ready version of the gladiatorial death match. It's the Hunger Games with the sharp edges smoothed off. Because when you're handling the adaptation based on $16 million in book sales, you don't take chances.

 Director Gary Ross on set. (Alliance Films)

If Twilight proved anything, it's that fans besotted by their love for the original are blind to the quality of the film making. The bar isn't low; it's subterranean -- hence the focus on the hunks of The Hunger Games. Thor's bro Liam Hemsworth as Gale. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, someone with an open face, easy to love. If there's a surprise, it's that the filmmakers actually cast an actress with some fire in her eyes, opting for Jennifer Lawrence as the iron-willed Katniss. Sure, jumping from Winter's Bone to the world of Panem seems like a leap. But remember she's already proved she's franchise ready in X-Men: First Class, plus she cleans up good for the carpet.

The Hunger Games film begins top-heavy with exposition. We're introduced to Panem, the shattered remains of North America, where a handful of cities live under the iron fist of the totalitarian government. The capitol allows the citizens of the various districts to prove their loyalty by offering up their youth for an annual gladiatorial death match watched by millions. It's Death Race 2000 crossed with Running Man and the voyeurism of The Truman Show.

 Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, left) and Katniss Everdeen (jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games (Alliance Films)

First we meet the hard-scrabble citizens of District 12, a coal mining town cast with the extras from The Grapes of Wrath. The opening scenes watching Katniss and Gale hunting in the forest is when The Hunger Games is at its best. But after Katniss volunteers to save her young sister from the horror of the games, we're thrust into the gaudy Capitol City. In an attempt to play up the rift between the rich and the poor it seems the costume designers over-compensated with a Rainbow Brite colour scheme that makes Flash Gordon seem subtle. Our first taste of things to come is Elizabeth Banks as the guide to the games, Effie Trinket. She's a pale-faced Kabuki clown that's impossible to take seriously.

In her journey to the games, Katniss is paired with Peeta, a bland-looking baker boy. They have a shared history that's hinted at, But where The Hunger Games truly stumbles is in presenting Katniss' inner struggle. Forced to compete together, the two become fan favourites for the games. Helped by their stylist Cinna (played by a surprisingly subtle Lenny Kravitz) they're presented as star-crossed lovers, thrown together in desperate times. In the novels, the question about what is real and what's a ploy is the narrative engine propelling us forward. In the film we see but a sliver of this; A furrowed brow, an unspoken question. The rest is left to us to add. Not to mention poor Gale left at home in District 12, seen briefly brooding in a corner.

Once the games get underway, the action takes a turn for the mundane. Ross favours shaky close-ups, his way of duplicating Collin's "first person narrative". Sadly there appear to be few steadicams in this future. And while fans may have been looking forward to seeing how the government manipulates the games for the loyal citizens of Panem, what we get instead is like a glitzy Coach's Corner, with the games host Caesar and Claudius the announcer providing play by play.

 Lenny Kravitz plays Cinna. (Alliance Films)

Still, just like the indomitable spirit of Katniss, there are actors who overcome the horrendous hair and make up. Woody Harrelson plays Haymitch, a former winner of the games who mentors Peeta and Katniss. Saddled with ridiculous long, limp, blond bangs, Harrelson still bubbles with a mixture of bitterness and rage and the movie could use much more of him. Stanley Tucci also triumphs over his purple pompadour playing Caesar Flickerman, the Guy Smiley of the games. He's the crowning jewel of the propaganda machine, but Tucci plays both sides giving us the sense he's more than just a puppet with a painted grin.

Also, while it's a brief role, Donald Sutherland makes the most of his appearance as President Snow. Framed in a wizardly mane of white hair, there's an ominous weight to his softly-spoken words. He is malice, cloaked in velvet.

The best adaptations take novels and add something more to them, but this installment feels like a reduction. Rather than the world-building, flesh and blood spirit that imbued the Harry Potter films, The Hunger Games is a by-the-book (or perhaps it's a buy-the-book) adaptation. It should satisfy fans and will amuse the rest, but it's nothing like the unsettling original.

RATING: 3 out of 5

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