"If no one watches, then they don't have a game," a teenager says in this faithful if cautious adaptation of the first volume of Suzanne Collins' astronomically successful dystopic YA trilogy. A withering indictment of omnipresent screens, endless spectacle and debased celebrity culture, The Hunger Games was inspired, the author has said, by flipping the channels from a reality-TV show to footage of the Iraq war. Most of Collins' critique, then, is compromised by the very existence of this big-screen transfer.
Set in an unspecified, postapocalyptic future, The Hunger Games takes place in Panem, a nation constructed out of the ruins of North America and consisting of 12 mostly impoverished districts and the prosperous Capitol. As punishment for an earlier uprising, the Capitol demands that one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district be selected via annual lottery to participate in the Hunger Games. Now in its 74th edition, this televised pageant of nonstop gore documents the 24 randomly drawn teenagers killing each other until only one remains.
This year's female "tribute" from District 12 — a coal-mining center located in the former Appalachia — is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a flinty 16-year-old who volunteers for the slaughter so that her beloved fragile younger sister, whose name has just been called, will be spared. Two years ago, Lawrence played a similar character in the present-day, Ozarks-set Winter's Bone. The earlier association enhances Lawrence's role here; the actress, more solidly built than her wispy contemporaries, has a particular gift for exuding iron determination and dead-eyed exhaustion.
When Katniss and her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), travel from their hardscrabble region to the gleaming, Oz-like Capitol, the city's opulence and depravity are conveyed via male citizens who look like members of the Lollipop Guild as styled by SNL's Stefon. Decadence is coded as unmistakably gay among the men in Capitol crowd scenes; these nellie Day-Glo steampunkers suggest that we can blame Project Runway for the end of civilization. Other significant set pieces from Collins' novel look laughably pitiful when realized on-screen: The Cornucopia, the horn-shaped warehouse to which the tributes race at the beginning of the Games to pick up supplies, resembles a Frank Gehry-designed titanium turd.
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For the film's most difficult visual challenge — depicting the unrelenting violence of the source so that it is neither cynically glamorized nor too brutal to preclude pubescents from buying tickets — Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern smartly deploy rapid cuts of the aftermath of the kid-on-kid savagery. A palm-size pool of blood, a vacant stare, a body going limp all effectively communicate the horrors of what just happened with sufficient impact.
And yet, at the risk of indulging in tired, pointless debates about page versus screen, it is impossible for this movie to ever hope to match the fury of the book. Collins is no great prose stylist, but through her very premise, she astringently articulates her anger at a culture — ours — indifferent to inequity and war and besotted with its own stupidity. But the book's rage and despair are diluted here, focusing too much on the high-tech gimmickry of the Gamemakers. Although the novel might make concessions to the conventions of young-adult lit, Collins' heroine is, in one of the source material's most gripping sections, perilously close to dying from dehydration. That slow, awful process is not dramatized on-screen: To do so would require an investment in a deeper, more existential and lonely terror that Ross' movie refuses to broach.
The Hunger Games Rages Against Our Stupid Culture and Becomes Part of the Problem.
Jennifer Lawrence|Suzanne Collins|Stanely Tucci|Elizabeth Banks|Josh Hutcherson