I didn't walk into this movie about child-on-child violence thinking it was going to be a jolly good time. But as a fan of all three Hunger Games books, and almost dying of anticipation for the movie release, I figured it would at least feel sort of "yee-haw!" in the same kind of cartoony way that Battle Royale, The Children, or The Devil Times Five does. Perhaps it would at least smell faintly of teen angst, Twilight style, or have some sweet, savory moments a la Harry Potter? But no. There's none of that here. For two hours and 22 minutes, I don't think I breathed once, because Hunger Games is brutal--and not for the reasons you expect. For a PG-13 movie, it gave me all the intensity of an R-rated one, making me feel like our little kid's movies are all grow’d up.
What separates this movie from the pack is a strong sense of rebellion and sticking it to the Man in a high-stakes environment. The evil Capitol that lords over the12 districts of this futuristic world rules with an iron fist, trying to smother the spirit of feisty girls like Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). Undaunted, she finds ways around their oppressive rule. Anything you're not allowed to do Katniss does in the name of keeping her family fed and somewhat functioning after her father's death (which the Capitol indirectly caused). So when her younger sister's name is drawn to participate in an annual televised battle to the death between teens from each of the districts, Katniss volunteers in her place. Then she has to use her hunting skills and cunning to stay alive longer than anyone else…and kill some people, if it comes to that. And you know it will.
Just like any other story of this sort, there's a love interest (unfortunately, it's Katniss' opponent Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson) and a coming-of-age vibe (because Katniss has to figure out how to drop the tough-girl act in order to win the favor of people who can help keep her alive). But set against a somber tone, gritty look, endless amount of close-ups, and shaky camerawork, it almost takes as much (emotional) work to watch the film as it would to play in the Games. The audience sits alongside Katniss for the entire time, squirming, shooting, and mourning with her. All of our own aggression and pain is on the screen, and like any great hero tale, we need Katniss to win for both herself and for us.
For people who have never read the book, the movie falls short in the main characters’ development. As usual, if you want the really good stuff, you have to read the book. I mean, Running Man had some juicier characters, for crying out loud. But making up for that is that the adaptation comes really, really close to what's on the page. Mostly, I was sad to see certain tender scenes cut short. And even though it's purposely less brutal blood-wise, there's still plenty of fighting, knives, and tracker jacker wounds to last until the next one comes out.