I'm going to forewarn you--this review is going to have some book comparisons. I'll try my best to separate it and also comment on it as a film, but there will be plenty of "in the book..." kind of comments. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where America has been renamed Panem, a place made up of 12 districts. Every year, two people between the ages of 12-18 are chosen to perform in a Battle Royale-esque tournament where only one comes out alive. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers after her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), is chosen. She leaves her family and friends--including best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth)--behind to join Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in the Games. They're mentored by Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former winner from their district. And after some training, the games begin. The film also stars Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, who is basically the Ryan Seacrest of the world; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, a flamboyant woman who works with Katniss and Peeta; Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss and Peeta's fashion designer; Toby Jones as Claudius, an announcer for the games; Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, who designs and runs the games; and Donald Sutherland as President Snow... the President.
AS AN ADAPTATION (MAJOR SPOILERS)
I read beforehand that there were a few big scenes missing. But honestly... I really can't recall anything all that important. Off the top of my head, I know Haymitch's original book entrance isn't there, the obsession with the Capitol food is gone, Katniss gets the Mockingjay pin in a different way, any of the Avox stuff is gone, Katniss' makeover team is pretty much background fodder, the games seem to last only a few nights instead of two weeks, Katniss doesn't drug Peeta before going to the Cornucopia, and a lot of the biggest injuries by the end (Katniss' ear, Peeta's lost leg) aren't there. In fact, the entire ending is much quicker than in the book, and it's slightly different from the book, as well; Peeta and Gale aren't really pissed at Katniss, the hospital stuff is gone, etc. But honestly, none of that really matters to me, especially in the grand scheme of things.
The only adaptation problem I had, actually, was the very short amount of time given to build the relationship between Katniss and Rue before her death. I mean, she's sprinkled throughout, but they only actually interact for maybe about five minutes before the sequence. For such an emotional section of the book, it was slightly rushed. However, I know the film was already almost 2.5 hours, so it's not like they could have built it up too much. And they did a pretty fine job in the time they were given, considering I actually felt a little emotional when the time came, and it's difficult to make me emotional with movies.
What I did love, though, was the fact that they added a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that wasn't in the books. It made a lot of things make more sense, actually. Seneca was given a much bigger role (from almost non-existent in the book to one of the main characters in the film). I really liked seeing how he ran the games and what the control room looked like, etc. And his interactions with Snow, who also has an extended role in the film, gave us a sneak peak at our primary villain that you really don't get to see until the second book. I also liked seeing how it worked with Haymitch getting donations for the parachute objects. That part never made much sense to me in the book, so I like that they at least expanded on that a little in the film. And, of course, Caesar was given an expanded role, as well. He has two scenes in the book (the interviews before and after the games), but here is given much more. He interviews Seneca, he acts as a commentator during the games (which you actually get to see people watching, too--another nice addition). You get to see a number of things you don't really learn about until the second book.
AS A FILM (NO SPOILERS)
I think director Gary Ross had a big job to do with this film, and he conveyed it rather well. Some have complained about the pacing being too slow, but it didn't bother me any. Having read the books, I can tell you that the film's pacing is actually much faster, especially after the games start. I know you can still argue "but I didn't read the books." Well... that is true. But I think that's just how the story goes. Either you like it or it's not for you.
The acting was fantastic. Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress, and Josh Hutcherson was able to keep up just fine. As others have stated, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks give some good comic relief (especially when they interact with each other), Lenny Kravitz is a great Cinna, and Stanley Tucci really shines as Caesar. I don't think there's a short end of the stick anywhere in this bunch. I know others have complained about the chemistry between Katniss and Gale (and/or Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth)--but I'll be honest, I felt the same way during the books, too. Actually, showing his reactions to things added more emotion to him than he had in this first book.
Let's talk about some visuals. The CGI isn't terrible; it's not the best out there, but it's better than average. If it was used frequently, it was hard to tell. All I really noticed was anything with fire and some creature effects. They were good enough not to be distracting; we'll put it that way. I felt the shaky cam aspect to the action wasn't as big of a detriment as I was expecting it to be. It wasn't terribly overused, and you could still see enough of the violence for it to be worthwhile.
And speaking of the violence, I was actually a fan of the fact that they often had silence over it. In fact, there really isn't much of a score here. A lot of the movie is quiet or muted. The score is good when it plays, but there was a surprising amount of silence for such a major, action-y film like this. I think it was a rather artsy kind of move.
Overall, the film works both as an adaptation and on its own. In fact, I think it makes a pretty dang fine adaptation, even to the point where I like aspects of the film and wish they were in the book (though they couldn't be, since the book is from Katniss' perspective). I like that the film took its time, set up the world and the characters in the first hour, and then spent time at the games and didn't rush too much. I wish they would have spent a little more time with Rue, but they had to cut corners somewhere, I suppose. It was handled very well, and if they do the next two anything at all like this one, count me in.