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'Hunger Games': Jennifer Lawrence reaps praise from critics

March 23, 2012 |  1:55 pm

The central figure in the film "The Hunger Games" and its source material, Suzanne Collins' young-adult novel about a post-apocalyptic society where teenagers are forced to engage in an annual televised death match, is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a brave, resourceful and reluctant competitor. Katniss, as played by Academy Award-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone"), is also the focus of many of the film's reviews, and most critics agree she's up for the task.

In his positive review for The Times, Kenneth Turan calls the film "an involving popular entertainment with strong narrative drive that holds our attention by sticking as close to the book's outline as it can manage."

Among the relatively minor changes made by the screenwriters (Collins, director Gary Ross and Billy Ray), Turan commends the most prominent one: "elimination of the book's first-person structure, which allows for scenes ... that were not in the novel." Above all else, the film succeeds based on the strong lead performance by Lawrence, "an actress who specializes in combining formidable strength of will with convincing vulnerability."

PHOTOS: Meet the main cast of 'The Hunger Games'

Slate's Dana Stevens writes that "The Hunger Games" film adaptation "isn't quite as crackingly paced as the novel, but it will more than satisfy existing fans of the trilogy and likely create many new ones." She adds, "The key to making this adaptation work was the casting of Katniss Everdeen," who Stevens notes appears in nearly every scene. Luckily, "The film's producers nailed it in picking Jennifer Lawrence ... who carries the whole film on her sturdy shoulders." Among the film's stumbles, Stevens says, are the dumbing down of the character Gale (Katniss' male best friend, played by Liam Hemsworth), the cleaning up of the character Haymitch (Katniss' mentor, played by Woody Harrelson) and the narratively unsatisfying cliffhanger ending.

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times has some issues with Ross, whom she refers to as an "unlikely and at times frustratingly ill-matched director for this brutal, unnerving story," and Lawrence, who offers "a disengaged performance that rarely suggests the terrors Katniss faces, including the fatalism that originally hangs on her like a shroud." Still, Dargis finds the fiercely independent character of Katniss to be compelling enough to compensate. She writes, "What finally saves the character and film both is the image of her on the run, moving relentlessly forward."

In the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday says the book's "perverse dystopia is brought faithfully, if un-spectacularly, to life" on the big screen. Hornaday adds that Ross "judiciously sidesteps the most barbaric aspects of Collins' tale" and "brings the bread and circuses of Collins' story to life with lurid color or primitive brutishness, depending on the setting." Once again, though, it all comes down to Lawrence and Katniss. Hornaday writes, "'The Hunger Games' is clearly Lawrence's movie to carry. She shoulders that burden with the same quiet, compelling focus and raw-boned directness she exhibited in 2010's 'Winter's Bone.'"

Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune deems "The Hunger Games" "pretty sharp entertainment. Phillips agrees with many of his peers that Lawrence's performance is "fierce and purposeful," and in those ways reminiscent of her work in "Winter's Bone." "I'd say she carries the movie," Phillips says, "except she's not the only good thing about it." Among those other good things are Ross at the helm ("a smart match for the material") and the score by James Newton Howard.

Among the minority of critics offering negative reviews, a number of them nonetheless praise Lawrence's performance. In the Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern describes the film as "both a feast of cheesy spectacle and a famine of genuine feeling, except for the powerful — and touchingly vulnerable — presence of Jennifer Lawrence." Other than Lawrence, he finds the film sluggish and heavy-handed.

Similarly, New York magazine's David Edelstein finds Ross' approach "hackish and dimwitted," and he laments that the film fails to plumb the truly grim and tragic stakes of the story. But he calls Lawrence one of the film's "two great assets" (the other being the score), adding, "The actress is not a conventionally chiseled Hollywood ingenue or a trained action star. But there’s a steadiness in her blue eyes that makes her riveting."

Now that the games have officially begun, this much is certain: We'll be seeing much more of Katniss and of Jennifer Lawrence in the days to come.

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— Oliver Gettell


 
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