Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth
Of the young adult book sensations, particularly the ones whose inevitable spawn invades multiplexes, The Hunger Games is not only the most tolerable but, in fact, more than tolerable. As you’ve no doubt finally discovered by now, Suzanne Collins’ bestseller boasts 24 kids hacking at one another until one is left. It’s a post-something future in which America has fallen, leaving only Panem, a country-of-sorts whose 12 downtrodden “districts” supply the resources for a lavish elite. To keep the masses in check, there is held the titular annual roundelay, wherein two teens from each district chosen by lottery duke it out in a controlled environment-arena while cameras roll.
Collins alleges she wasn’t previously aware of Battle Royale, the Japanese novel and subsequent cult movie, which presents essentially the same bloodbath. No matter. If The Hunger Games reads like gory fodder cleverly adapted into something that could be distributed by kid-friendly Scholastic, it at least becomes its own thing. It’s a novel of warmed-over ideas, but of ideas at least, blending together thoughts on class conflict, barbarism and reality TV as a means of control. And unlike Twilight, it features a strong female protagonist in the unfortunately named Katniss Everdeen, a weathered, rugged 16-year-old with a strong sense of autonomy, who doesn’t want to have kids and who rocks a bow and arrow without ever turning into a mere fanboy construct.
The movie version—inevitable, of course—captures almost all of this; nearly the only thing jettisoned is Katniss’ oft-eye-rollingly purple narration, which is to humanity’s benefit. Playing a slightly more vulnerable and shell-shocked version of her steely teen in Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence embodies Katniss, who volunteers for the games as a replacement for her young sister. Capable and a little arrogant, she finds her considerable skills with weaponry and survival aren’t enough. At the suggestion of her mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (the futuristic names sometimes try too hard), a boozy, cynical former Games champ played by Woody Harrelson, she’ll have to appeal to the audience and, more importantly, to “sponsors.” The more they like her, the more gifts—water, seemingly magical ointments, food—they’ll have airdropped into the playing field as easy plot solutions.
Buried inside The Hunger Games is a very savage, very funny satire. Like the book, the movie—handled by Pleasantville and Seabiscuit perpetrator Gary Ross—is brooding rather than midnight movie-friendly. The kills—despite being totally obscured by a combination of shakycam and Cuisinart editing—hurt, especially if the deceased is a button-cute 12-year-old. The overall tone is serious without being emo—it’s survivalist.
Still, there are intimations of a sense of humor. The dominant sartorial theme of the swank Capitol is faux-Victorian with hot colors (e.g., Stanley Tucci’s announcer with a towering blue ’do). It’s a metropolis that resides somewhere between Ken Russell and the infamous dystopian disco musical The Apple . Better, the central romance, it’s suggested, is almost certainly bullshit. To create a romantic narrative that will keep viewers from being bored and help her in the stats, Katniss has to make doe-eyes at fellow district-er Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). This anti-romance naturally blooms into a standard YA love triangle in the subsequent, decreasingly relevant sequels, but cherish the notion of a major teen blockbuster in which the leads make out mostly to survive.
There’s a lot to admire in The Hunger Games, although like a lot of adaptations of popular work of late, what there is to admire is what readers admired in the source. Increasingly fearful of fan rage, movies—from Twilight to Watchmen to the largely redundant The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake—become slaves to their inspiration, success measured in the filmmakers not getting it wrong. If The Hunger Games: The Movie has a conceptual problem, it’s that it plays exactly like the novel, only in motion picture form. It’s well-made but unnecessary. The book ain’t broke and neither, hopefully, is your imagination.