'Hunger Games' has perfect blockbuster ingredients
LOS ANGELES—With "Harry Potter" done and "Twilight" nearly done, there's a strong craving for Hollywood's next teen-based fantasy franchise. And what an appetizing mix of ingredients "The Hunger Games" has cooked up.
It may not have the almost universal name recognition of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" when it launched that film franchise in 2001. And it may not have "Twilight's" undying devotion of starry-eyed teen and tween girls, along with their moms and grandmas.
But "The Hunger Games" has some fixings even those billion-dollar properties lack.
Here's a look at the pros and cons for the cinematic prospects of "The Hunger Games," which began rolling out in Europe on Wednesday and arrives in U.S. theaters Friday.
STORY: In "The Hunger Games" and its two sequels, author Suzanne Collins created something with the otherworldly appeal of "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" and the voyeuristic draw of reality television.
"Harry Potter" and "Twilight" were set in our times, but with their wizards, witches, vampires and werewolves, they're the stuff of dream worlds. "The Hunger Games," while set in a decimated future North America, feels like a mirror of the here and now with its privileged haves and impoverished have-nots and its satiric commentary on random celebrity and the perverse pleasure of viewing the misfortune of others from the comfort of your living room.
"It speaks to the world of reality television and watching other people's tragedies for entertainment," said Jennifer Lawrence, who stars as Katniss Everdeen, one of 24 teen "tributes" chosen for an annual televised fight to the death that's been imposed on her society's rebellious outlying districts for the amusement of the pampered residents of the capital city.
"It also speaks to what just one person can do. I think it's so important that young people understand they do have so much power in this new generation, and this is just one girl that changes everything."
CASTING: Sure, the 21-year-old Lawrence is a few years older than Katniss, but the Oscar-nominated star of "Winter's Bone" and co-star of "X-Men: First Class" still can play a teenager credibly. She beautifully captures the steely will and youthful anger of Katniss, along with the cunning, ferocity and vulnerability that makes Katniss a star to root for in the games.
The supporting players are equally well cast: the two hunks in Katniss' life, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, her fellow District 12 games tribute, and Liam Hemsworth as Gale, her longtime hunting companion; Elizabeth Banks as Katniss and Peeta's prim, perky handler; Stanley Tucci as a crazily coiffed TV games commentator; Lenny Kravitz as Katniss' warmhearted, subversive stylist; Donald Sutherland as the evil, conspiring President Snow; Amandla Stenberg as the agile, waif-like games tribute Rue.
And who could possibly find fault with Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta's boozy, cynical mentor?
CINEMATIC ALTERATIONS: In the book, told in first-person by Katniss, once the action shifts to the games arena, that's all we see.
Director Gary Ross, who shares screenwriting credit with executive producer Collins and Billy Ray, wisely expand the film beyond what's in front of Katniss to give regular glimpses of what's happening in the capital and how the public in the downtrodden districts is responding to the machinations of the game organizers.
Wes Bentley has some choice moments as head gamemaker Seneca Crane, merely a bit player in the book, as he colludes with the president to keep the tributes -- and the public -- in line.
ACTION: This is a story about kids killing kids, and while Collins' books are not overly gory, the violence is brutal and merciless. Shot a bit more explicitly, the film easily could have had an R rating that would prohibit those younger than 17 from seeing it unless accompanied by an adult.
To maintain the commercial prospects, the filmmakers walked a tightrope between staying true to the savagery of the book and keeping it tame enough for younger fans. They secured a PG-13 rating that softens the action while retaining the barbaric tone, so that it feels as though real lives are at stake.
"Teenagers really discovered it and created the original frenzy for the books. We wanted to make sure we made a movie that they could see," said "Hunger Games" producer Nina Jacobson. "But we did want the violence to be urgent and present and feel real. We wanted it to feel as if you were really there but not be gratuitous, not to glorify it or stylize it."
To show hardcore violence "would feel wrong, like you were guilty of the crimes that the capital was guilty of," Jacobson said.
GENDER APPEAL: Girls and women made "Twilight" a sensation. Most guys who saw it were dragged along by wives and girlfriends.
While "The Hunger Games" is a female-centric story and has a "Twilight"-style love triangle involving Katniss, Peeta and Gale, its themes and actions appeal to boys and men, as well.
When he first heard that a "Hunger Games" movie was in the works, co-star Hutcherson went out and got the books, partly because of the hype, partly out of professional interest to see if there might be a role for him.
"I read the first one and just got hooked. I read all three in about a week. ... It definitely wasn't the sort of thing I normally would be that interested in reading, but immediately, right off the bat, I could feel it wasn't your average female-lead-type book," said Hutcherson, who like most men, has not read any of the "Twilight" books.
Hutcherson's 15-year-old brother and his pals are "Hunger Games" fans, and a 35-year-old male acquaintance and his friends have bought tickets to catch one of the first midnight screenings, he said.
"It really is transcending gender and all generations," Hutcherson said.
CRITICAL PRAISE: Early reviews show that "The Hunger Games" is a hit with critics, which is not the case for many Hollywood blockbusters. The first "Twilight" movie scored dismally on RottenTomatoes.com, a site that compiles reviews, with only 49 percent of critics giving it positive notices (two of the three "Twilight" sequels scored even worse).
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first installment in that franchise, managed an excellent 80 percent rating of positive reviews.
But with reviews still rolling out, "The Hunger Games" started off even better, with 93 percent positive reviews.
The sky's the limit when even critics like a blockbuster-in-the-making.
If anyone can think of any, please let us know.