In a decadent future, The Hunger Games' child-on-child deathmatches entertain the mindless and cow the oppressed. Today, they're as dangerous as a PG-13 movie dares be. Though the sharp edges present in Suzanne Collins' novel are dulled in Gary Ross's film, star Jennifer Lawrence shows a convincing paradox of youthful stoicism and vulnerability, and she pulls it through.
The games take place in Panem, a depopulated successor state built on America's ruins. It consists of The Capitol, a magnificent city somewhere in the Rockies, and twelve subjugated "districts" scattered around the continent. As punishment for a long-ago rebellion, a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are randomly "reaped" from each district each year. Then they enter an arena filled with hidden cameras, and fight to the death.
Dirt-poor teen Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) lives in coal-mining District 12, and volunteers for the games to protect her 12-year-old sister at the reaping. She's whisked with age-mate and fellow "tribute" Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) to the glittering Capitol. A dead-shot with the bow, she has as good a chance as any kid from the sticks.
Trained by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, playing the book's repulsive alcoholic as a dashing drunk), Katniss and Peeta must deal with highly-trained tributes from richer districts, with the gamesmasters' sadistic traps, and, finally, with one another.
A blend of Lord of the Flies, The Running Man and America's Got Talent, The Hunger Games is a parable of our times, where kids' attention flickers from endless war to trivial entertainment, and finally to perverse mixtures of both. But it's really about how Katniss develops the emotional strength to overcome it all, which gives the filmmakers plenty of latitude to skip over the source material without betraying it.
Sure, a Paul Verhoeven saga would have embraced the novel's satirical undercurrents, confronted us with our own tittilation at violence, and would not have not danced around Panem's creepy mix of consumer culture and totalitarian evil. But Verhoeven creates cult hits, not $150m opening weekends, so this is how it goes.
Thankfully, the cast makes up for all the sanding down. Peeta, who could easily have become an aimless, benign love interest, is given an anxious heart by Hutcherson. As smarmy TV personalities, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks manage to hint at an awareness of how empty their public personas are, even if it's never called for by the script. Donald Sutherland deepens tyrant Coriolanus Snow with a tired sagacity—his is a character much-enlarged from the novel, where society itself was the true menace.
Even with a $100m budget and an blinding array of fantastic costumes, the direction is as bland as a TV soap. Outdoors, especially in the arena, this seems to work to its advantage. When there are sets, though, it reminds me of 1990s STV flicks with Christopher Lambert. Shakycam commences at incongruous moments, such as otherwise polished close-ups of people talking.
The film's most striking image is The Capitol itself, a vile Vegas resort a la The Cosmopolitan expanded to monstrous dimensions. Fashion designer Judianna Makovsky has a wild time illustrating its mannered ruling class, but while the sources are apt—think fascist-era Schiaparelli—their presentation is so cartoonish as to smooth over Panem's lethal decadence.
It's not her fault, and it's not the fault of Collins, who offers wonderful insinuations in the books. Consider the poisoner-in-chief: forced to sample his own formulas, he wears genetically engineered lapel-roses to hide the scent of chronic halitosis. Despite writing in the young adult mode, she's as good with these baroque details as Michael Moorcock, the master of connecting depraved aesthetics to the cultures that generate them. Perhaps it's the fault of the director, making sure everything about this film stops a safe distance short of risky.
The Hunger Games' violence is also measured out with too much precision: brutality depicted but distracted-from with careful editing. Contemporary controversy optimums are nailed with Katniss-like precision; though defined by the limitations of a PG-13 rating, this stylized and sanitized visual language is itself dehumanizing. Strikes connect off-screen or out of focus. There is blood, but the accompanying suffering is often more emotional than physical. Finally, The Hunger Games echoes its own targets: the death lingered on longest is too romantic, too painless, and too great a lie.
Likewise, the novel presents Katniss's romantic overtures to Peeta as an emotionally-confused TV stunt designed to save her life. But on-screen, it's the same epic love story that the residents of The Capitol fell for. The further we're taken from the stretched-out panic in Katniss's head, the less any of it makes sense.