by Jeff Schultz on March 27, 2012

Movie theaters need to send author Suzanne Collins a big box of chocolates, or at least a thank you note. “Harry Potter” wrapped up last summer, and “Twilight” sunsets in November; who now will sell all that popcorn on those $150-million-plus opening weekends? Disney bet big to carry the torch with “John Carter” this spring and now has a $200 million hole in its side. Collins, who co-penned the “The Hunger Games,” based on the first installment in a trilogy of her novels, takes the honor.

Unlike the “Twilight” movies, which failed to compel, “The Hunger Games” bites into its hype with the right amount of teeth. Director Gary Ross turns Collins’ material into a visceral vision, a living, breathing video game where you can feel the danger. Teenagers armed with hunting knives, mines, swords, bows and arrows and genetically engineered wasps put the vampire fad finally to rest.

In the movie, we find North America in worse times than it already is. An apocalypse sectioned off the continent into the twelve districts of Panem and a capital where the wealthiest, as sport, select a boy and a girl from each district by lottery to participate as a “tribute” in the televised Hunger Games. Each tribute is placed into a forest-like arena unfavorably rigged and booby-trapped by the wealthy. It’s canned hunting where the prey do the preying themselves. Think of it as CBS’s “Survivor” meets Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.”

The film pulls its strength from its 16-year-old protagonist Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who lives a misfortunate life in Panem’s shoddiest district in the Appalachia region (where coal is king!), playing the role of provider to her mother and younger sister. Fundamentally, she’s the “girl from Kansas” who knows a thing or two about shooting an arrow. When her sister’s name is pulled to be District 12’s female tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Lawrence portrays Katniss in a Gary Cooper-like fashion, not having to say a word, and yet we get entirely what she stands for – courage, valor, perseverance and sacrifice. In a nightmarish world lacking role models, the character Katniss teaches us to be our own heroes.

Lawrence keeps “The Hunger Games” grounded while joined by an amazing cast who make the shallow characters of the capital three-dimensional. Giving her best performance ever in a film is Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, one of the games’ chaperones, done up like the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland” with purple puffy sleeves and an oversized rose growing out of her white, curly wig. Other characters in this circus are the games’ blue-haired MC, Caesar Flickerman, played by Staley Tucci. He channels just about any game show host you ever wanted to punch. Then there is Woody Harrelson playing Katniss’ buffoonish mentor Haymitch Abernathy, a character who may have stepped out of a Mark Twain novel reeking of booze and sarcasm.

With no one to relate to, albeit the exception of her District 12 weaker-willed male counterpart, Peeta, who harbors romantic feelings for our heroine, Katniss is on her own in this mess. Her natural strength and adroitness makes her the top prize on her opponents’ “to-kill” list. The camera captures Katniss experiences vividly as she is being hunted. The soundtrack rings in our ears whenever she sustains a blow. Her adrenaline pumps through our veins as she hones in on her target and shoots her arrow.

Running at two-and-a-half hours, “The Hunger Games” has its slower scenes, and not everything makes perfect sense. What works really well is that the behind-the-scenes jabs of governmental hypocrisy are just as poignant as the jabs onscreen. The capital’s only relationship with their constituents is plucking these kids from their homes to watch them cut each other to pieces on a TV reality series. Ross comments on the hollowness of television well — and previously explored the theme in his 1998 film “Pleasantville.” In “The Hunger Games,” the tributes get the star treatment as if they are entering a beauty pageant rather than a death match.

The film often feels like a cross between “Network” and “Deliverance,” and all too often we forget “The Hunger Games” is a kids’ book. Collins in an interview said she was inspired to write the novel while channel surfing one day, blending images of a reality TV show with news reports of the Iraq war. Wisely enriching the novel with pieces of Greek mythology, she gives readers and moviegoers a product that doesn’t dull the senses. Forget once and for all about those vegan vampires. This is “Twilight” with a brain. It’s a little bit Frank Capra and a little bit Roald Dahl mixed with all the action and intensity of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. “The Hunger Games” wins the gold.

Jeff Schultz is a reporter for “The Chesterton Tribune” in Northwest Indiana and former editor-in-chief of “The Purdue Review.” He is also co-host of “The Eclectic Blender” on WVLP, 98.3 FM and wvlp.org.

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