The latest young adult literary property and blockbuster-teen-film-franchise-in-waiting, The Hunger Games will certainly make a mint (weekend showings
have already been selling out around the country), and likely rally many
fans of the book series to its defense, but more inquisitive minds will
find its cinematic adaptation lacking in some, if not many, crucial
Adapted by director Gary Ross, Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins from the latter’s bestselling novel of the same name, the film unfolds in a post-apocalyptic future, on the ruins of what was once North America and is now a super-nation known as Panem, divided into a dozen districts. As a twisted annual punishment for a past anti-federal uprising, each compliant district holds a lottery in which one adolescent boy and girl apiece are selected to compete in a televised “tribute,” known as the Hunger Games, in which there is but a single survivor.
After her younger sister is chosen, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) impulsively volunteers to take her spot and represent the impoverished District 12; baker’s son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), meanwhile, is chosen as her male counterpart. Whisked off to the fancy Capitol by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, sporting a wardrobe seemingly nipped from Helena Bonham Carter in Alice in Wonderland), Peeta and Katniss are soon introduced to their assigned mentor, former winner (and current lush) Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson).
After a regimented system of combat and survival training, the contestants are released into a cordoned off wilderness, and the bloodletting begins. Combatants from the elite Districts 1 and 2, located closest to the Capitol, are the aristocratic blue-bloods of this game, training in special academies for years before the competition. Katniss, though, is a skilled hunter with the bow and arrow, and repairs deep into the forest to try to outwit and outlast the others. Peeta at first seems willing to sell her out to the others for his own temporary advantage, but soon a powerful alliance and burgeoning romance between the pair blossoms, perhaps forcing a change in the Hunger Games’ rules.
Taking its inspiration from television’s Survivor, American Idol and many other sources, including The Running Man and 2001’s Series 7: The Contenders, The Hunger Games on the surface seems interested in exploring darker human appetites and impulses that feed so much of our present-day tabloid culture. Except that it doesn’t really exploit or explore anything it sets up, instead diddling around with sappy, sub-par teen romance. Haymitch makes mention of playing nice for the cameras in order to curry sponsors, but there’s no real follow-up with this, nor an explication of the events’ rules, or how the televised extravaganza fits into the broader dystopian society. Ross’ vision for this story is very programmatic, and its finale — a fight against three remaining contestants on top of a Frank Gehry sculpture in the middle of a field — is so predictable as to almost elicit yawns.
Basically, the film seems oddly disengaged from the potential richness of its conceit, and interested in little more than a parallel-world representation of the distracting spectacle in which its sub-class is forced to participate.That its politics are shapeless and its social commentary less than trenchant is perhaps hardly surprising in the grand scheme of things, given the hundreds of millions of dollars which distributor Lionsgate wishes to mine from the property, in the form of this movie, its sequels and all sorts of merchandising spin-offs. Still, at a certain point, does mere baseline structural proficience stop being enough for audiences? The Hunger Games just sets its sights on “good enough,” and ergo achieves that result in listless fashion.
Equally problematic is the visual scheme Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern (Million Dollar Baby, J. Edgar) employ, which favors wildly restless, tightly framed hand-held camerawork and close-ups that undercut any potential thrill or pop in the movie’s additionally blandly staged action sequences. For the first forty-plus minutes this is fairly interminable. It settles a bit — once settled in the Capitol, the filmmakers seem less eager to prove how wild and desperate circumstances are for the average citizen — but never comes across as more than a strange masking technique, a substitute for deeper characterization.
Some of the supporting players definitely enliven the proceedings — Banks, Stanley Tucci and especially Harrelson — but they’re still interlopers from a grander world we know little about. Lawrence is a fine actress, as evidenced in Winter’s Bone and Lori Petty’s The Poker House, but she seems a bit too perfect and un-rough-around-the-edges as Katniss. Different strokes, I realize, but a pertinent point of comparison is Saoirse Ronan in Hanna; she anchored that film, physically and emotionally, but also retained a certain feral or socially maladapted quality stemming from her having been raised alone in the woods by her father. Katniss comes from what used to be (and basically remains) rural Appalachia, but seems a bit too at ease with the circumstances around her, burdened by neither wonderment nor the fear of an animal who is lower on the food chain. (Lionsgate, PG-13, 142 minutes)