The Hunger Games is an unevenly paced adaptation of the equally poorly paced bestselling novel by Suzanne Collins. It's about as close to the novel as you can get, bringing with it all of the strengths (such as the characters and the well thought-out world), while not being able to fix the main weaknesses -- namely, the pacing.
Set in a near-future, post-apocalyptic society, The Hunger Games centres on a tough, headstrong 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen (Winter's Bone star Jennifer Lawrence). It's the time of year when oppressive government The Capitol holds its annual "Hunger Games," a contest in which two children are randomly chosen from each of the 12 districts to be forced into an arena and fight to the death until only one remains. Katniss, of course, ends up being one of the "tributes" from District 12 along with a charismatic boy named Peeta (Journey 2's Josh Hutcherson). As soon as this happens, tension grows between the two characters, especially after they realize that at least one of them won't be making it home.
There's a lot of time spent building up to the Hunger Games portion of the plot. The time that we're given is beneficial, allowing us to get to know the characters and therefore care about their fates. Katniss is our main character, no question, but a few members of the supporting cast elicit enough sympathy to win the support of audience members.
It was a good decision to dedicate more time to the characters at the beginning rather than give the Games the most time. Unfortunately for the film, the "Hunger Games" part underwhelms. The first source you might look at is the director, Gary Ross, who isn't exactly well known for action films -- his previous directorial efforts are Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. He's not to blame, however. The film's rating is likely a bigger cause of the problem. In order to satisfy the requirements of the PG-13 classification (a rating Canada doesn't have, but can translate either to PG or 14A here), you can't include a lot of violence. Considering that the entire second half of the movie has children killing each other Battle Royale-style, you can see the problems that this rating must have caused the production team.
Despite showing more than some might think you can get away with, most of the violence in The Hunger Games had to be obscured in one manner or another in order to keep the rating down. Ross and his crew decided to shoot the action scenes with shaky cam while editing it as fast-paced as possible. It's like watching a Bourne film, except that the characters, by design, all blend into the background instead of sticking out and allowing you to see them clearly. It's often hard to follow exactly what's happening during these scenes, and it makes them the weakest part of the film. It had to be done to allow the film to be seen by the teenage target audience, but it harms the finished product.
The Hunger Games does something right, though -- almost all of the scenes in the novel are accurately represented here, with only small, subtle changes. The pin that Katniss acquires is from a different source, and the entire subplot with the Avox girl has been excised, for example. I had some worries going into the film, like how the filmmakers would get viewers inside Katniss's head. After seeing the film, however, those qualms were put to rest -- this is almost a pitch-perfect adaptation of the novel.
By no stretch of the imagination is The Hunger Games bad. In fact, it's very enjoyable, for the most part, and if you're looking for an accurate representation of the book, you have it here. If you haven't read the book prior to seeing the film, you'll miss out on a few small details, but it won't hinder your overall experience too much.
Either way, The Hunger Games provides an exciting, emotionally involving experience that is sure to thrill old fans and make newcomers instant admirers. A fantastic world has been crafted here, and it's a place you'll want to spend two and a half hours inside.