As adaptations go, The Hunger Games is pretty much spot on and there's hardly anything left out from the book - naturally some scenes play out shorter and a few developments are ignored, but for the most part it's a page-by-page copy. Which in itself might not be anything to write home about. If anything, it would be a criticism since we already have the book, so why do we need the film?
But where the movie is unable to compete (mainly in the subtleties of the action), it makes up for in some key moments that set up future films. Not too much so that everything is rammed down your throat, but enough to tell you that more is at play than what we're seeing. The film also compensates for the lack of detailed backstory with some clever exposition and a particularly effective flashback sequence.
The movie doesn't talk down to its aimed-at teen audience and rarely shies away from the violence, dealing with some big themes and tugging at the heart strings along the way. What's extra impressive is the brave decision to stick to the book in terms of pace - with a fairly actionless first hour-and-a-bit (and remember, this is an action film!) it would be easy to lose the audience. But the first half is tackled with such subtlety and attention that you don't care - there's more than enough to enjoy in seeing the way life plays out for the young Hunger Gamers(?) in their training. All this builds and builds as very little is known of the Hunger Games themselves, meaning that when things kick off we're eager and ready to go. Let the Games begin!
What follows may be fairly basic "survival of the fittest" stuff (yes, a lot like Battle Royale and a chunk of Stephen King's work), but we're fully invested in the key characters by this point, making the drama far greater than you could hope for if we'd quickly joined the action half an hour in.
Jennifer Lawrence shines in a daring role that would be easy to play fairly straight, bringing just the right balance of tenderness and power to spring Katniss Everdeen into life. The supporting cast do their jobs well - Josh Hutcherson, Lenny Kravitz and Amandla Stenberg all hold their own, while Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci put in predictably good performances - but our attention never leaves Lawrence, who commands every scene she's in.
There's nothing wrong with The Hunger Games (it's daring, emotive, dramatic and powerful), but there are times when you feel it could do more. Having a character throw a big metal rock to prove his strength may work in the book, but on the screen it seems clunky and lazy. Likewise, the decision to stray from the source material and cut away from the Hunger Games, showing the goings on of friends and family etc sometimes detracts from the intensity of the action. Yes, some parts are necessary (commentators explain key bits of info that are essential), but at times, there are clear cuts that pay maybe a little too much attention to possible future storylines when all we really care about it the young woman fighting for her life. But these are all minor criticisms (you know how good a film is when you're picking it apart for such tiny issues) and never really bring down the quality of the movie.
All in all, The Hunger Games hits the audience across the board - there's something for everyone. Ok, so I might have liked a bit more brutal violence, but it's rather refreshing that an action movie is capable of retaining your interest without showing blood and guts at every turn. The movie never patronises its young fans and never frustrates its older audience - it's strong, powerful, self-aware and confident. Overall, a cracking film that has me itching for parts two and three.....
Read more of Neil's reviews.