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Image courtesy Telegraph.co.uk

I am just home from the very first showing of “The Hunger Games.” I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.  I read the books a few months ago in a spree, barely sleeping and dreaming about The Hunger Games when I did.  My unbridled enthusiasm for the books (which I have been pushing on my friends like Jehovah’s Witnesses push bibles) meant that I was prepared to like the movie, but I was concerned that I would be let down or that the torrent of positive reviews would get my hopes up too high (I read them in spite of myself).

But as a fan of the books, I am a fan of the movie.  Here are the essentials:

The movie is about a post-apocalyptic version of North America wherein 12 Districts send teenage “Tributes” to the Hunger Games every year, essentially to engage in gladiatorial combat for the entertainment of the decadent Capitol population, who watch it as the Ultimate Reality Show.

Jennifer Lawrence, as the heroine Katniss Everdeen, is just pretty badass. She’s alluring without being sexy, athletic without being ripped, brave without bravado.  Most importantly, Lawrence’s Katniss is believable as a teenager (a conflicted, furious, prematurely adult teenager – but still someone who feels fundamentally young).

Peeta is short, not the football-player build I imagined him to have, and his relationship with Katniss lost a lot of its nuance without her inner monologue, but he’s a cutie-pie. Gale isn’t given much to work with, but the trailer doesn’t do him justice: he is one fine specimen of young manhood and I sure did enjoy looking at him.  His relationship with Katniss becomes more important in the second book/movie, so hopefully he’s up to the task. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch was better than I expected, and Elizabeth Banks, who was my choice for Mama Everdeen, is a pretty awesome Effie Trinket.  Cinna = perfection.

The movie as a whole was pretty great.  My moviegoing companion cried when Katniss volunteered for the games and my heart was racing for pretty much the entire two hours.  The special effects are best deployed in the scenes in the Capitol; the Games scenes with lots of special effects have lots of quick cuts and shaky camerawork.  The quick cuts are partly to reduce on-screen violence without diminishing the importance of what’s happening.  But there are a couple places where it feels a little sloppy: Katniss’ relationship with Rue, another tribute, feels rushed, and all of the tributes felt a little thin.  Also, one of the scariest things about the Capital are their ability to produce Muttations – genetically-modified animals.  Their role in the books is central: mockingjays, a critical plot point in all three books, are glossed over in the movie.  And in the movie’s finale, the muttations, and the way in which the characters encounter them, don’t feel true to the spirit of the book at all – which is certainly not for lack of CGI.

Despite a few shortcomings, however, I’m already waiting for the second movie (if I could have just kept watching, I’d still be in the theater right now).  I think its worth reading and seeing – like Harry Potter, its a cultural phenomenon that is also vastly entertaining and worth the time.