BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Every year, the districts of Panem offer tributes, 24 boys and girls, to fight in a televised competition—the Hunger Games. When her sister Prim is called during the Reaping Ceremony, Katniss Everdeen offers to take her place.
PROS: Strong ensemble performances from new and seasoned performers; intriguing glimpses of a totalitarian world that never gets too preachy; deft handling of action sequences and characters; a dark premise…
CONS: …that could be darker given said premise; too long; Gary Ross’s scattershot direction; a bit too familiar for the well-versed science fiction viewer; feels like a buffer was placed between the movie and the viewer.
An early scene shows the strength and key weakness of The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross’s adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s grim 2008 dystopia. During the Reaping ceremony, Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) stands in a fenced area with the other girls as the clownishly dressed and painted Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) draws a name to serve as District 12’s tribute for the Hunger Games, a televised contest involving mortal combat between twenty-four boys and girls, with only one standing as victor. When Trinket announces Katniss’s twelve-year-old sister Prim (Paula Malcomson) as tribute, Katniss, obviously panicked and terrified, suddenly volunteers to take her place. Lawrence evokes a degree of fear and desperation so powerful that it contrasts with the events leading up to this moment, in which the other boys and girls sullenly mill about as their parents look on, similarly dismal. Even though the Reaping and the Hunger Games represent a seventy-year tradition for the nation of Panem (which devised the Games as punishment after an uprising by District 13), and despite the obviously totalitarian regime overseeing all of the districts now inhabiting North America, everybody wears the scene with acceptance and resignation, and without protest. I write this review as the nation expresses its outrage at the death of Trayvon Martin and wonder if even the most indifferent parents would so passively accept even the idea that a regime could send their children off to a nearly certain death.
Why does this matter? Perhaps because Collins’s novel compelled reader interest despite obvious lapses. Reading like a mélange of Robert Sheckley’s “The Prize of Peril,” Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, The Hunger Games told its tale from Katniss’s point of view, allowing her to be a full citizen of Panem and District 12, where her observations of others might seem far more matter of fact. The movie, by contrast, draws on so many other dystopias, from elements of Rollerball and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to The Running Man and Death Race 2000, that Ross builds an unintentional buffer between the movie and the audience, thus causing this major scene to play somewhat falsely. (It doesn’t help that coal miners make up the population of District 12, yet everybody seems far too clean.) But only somewhat, because despite the implausibility of the setup, Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson compel interest as Katniss and Peeta Mellark (District 12’s second tribute).
Indeed, at first glance The Hunger Games’s strength appears to rest solely on its cast and performances. As Katniss and Peeta ride a train to Panem’s capitol city they meet their hard-drinking trainer Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only person in District 12 who ever survived the Hunger Games. Once at the capitol Katniss meets the stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and is given a makeover. The President (Donald Sutherland) oversees the capitol and Panem itself while smarmy, obsequious Seneca Crane (Wes Bently, who wears a black beard that looks like the hibiscus background of a smartphone) oversees the Hunger Games itself. Even Stanley Tucci and Toby Smith play television hosts Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith, respectively, with a relish and zeal that never dips into scenery chewing.
Additionally, the sequences in the capitol allow screenwriters Ross, Collins, and Billy Ray to flesh out the world of Panem, from its pageantry to the crass manipulation of its media. Its citizens dress in cotton-candy-colored clothing and similarly hued hair, looking a little like the underground denizens of L.Q. Jones’s A Boy and His Dog. While interesting, ultimately the commentary comes across as heavy-handed, notably as Flickerman tries to play Katniss and Peeta as District 12’s star-crossed lovers. Worse still, the movie drags as Katniss and Peeta run through their training as a matter of course, and the movie seems to run out of steam just before the Games begin, as if the screenplay can’t bring itself to the main event. Think of Rocky without the final fight.
But when the players find themselves in the ring — in this variation of the games a forest — everything coalesces. Ross’s direction finally settles into place, and the characters show the cunning and strength that hovered into realization in all preceding scenes. As members of other districts hunt Katniss, she tries to move as far away from the action as possible, but Crane engineers a forest fire to move her back on track. Ross builds tension and suspense in many sequences (especially the scene where Katniss drops a hive of tracker jackets onto a pack of gamers), though he cannot help but build a buffer. The brutal killing of adolescents, while grim, should pack more of a punch. Granted, the movie needed to lighten its mood in order to receive a PG-13 rating, but sacrifices the disturbing depths it could have explored, making merely disturbing what could have been chilling and harrowing.
And yet The Hunger Games nonetheless manages to be affecting and powerful in spite of multiple misgivings. It retains a good deal of Collins’s novel while showcasing its strong cast, and while a bit aloof, demonstrates care for its characters seldom seen in most adaptations. It’s not perfect, but it is perfectly acceptable.