As teen-minded literature turned into teen-minded cinema goes, it's easy to get suckered into thinking The Hunger Games is deeper and richer than it is. Set in a dystopian future, this clever mash-up of Battle Royale, The Running Man and Stephen King's novella The Long Walk has enough white-knuckle suspense, adrenalized emotion and populist sentiment to appeal to both genders and both sides of the political aisle. But much as it seems to have something to say about media violence, feminist strength and the plight of the 99 percent, this film by director Gary Ross (Seabuscuit, Pleasantville) is more about presenting well-trod ideas than exploring them.
Instead, it's better to approach The Hunger Games for what it is: well-crafted entertainment that questionably uses the hunting and killing of children as a way to stoke undeniably dramatic fires. That it is rated PG-13 while the soon-to-be released documentary Bully (which confronts bullying in our schools) received an "R," says some rather unflattering things about our culture.
For those who are not part of the 16-million-books-sold crowd, Suzanne Collins' teen sci-fi follows Katniss Everdeen (Elizabeth Lawrence), a 17-year-old who lives in the poverty-stricken coal-mining community of District 12. After her father dies in the mines and her mother falls into catatonia, Katniss is forced to take care of her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), and feed the family by poaching game in the nearby forests. Every year, the 12 districts that surround the totalitarian state of Panem (formerly the U.S.A.) must offer up by lottery one boy and one girl under the age of 18, to be entered into the Hunger Games as penance for their past attempt at rebellion. A wildly popular televised gladiatorial match between teens, the game awards its sole survivor with wealth and fame, while the winner's district is given a year's worth of extra rations and supplies. But Panem's underlying political message is clear: If we're willing to do this to your children, imagine what we'll do to you.
When Primrose is selected as a contestant (a death sentence for the innocent young girl), Katniss volunteers to take her place. Paired with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the teenage son of the village baker, she is whisked away to the opulent and decadent Capitol (which looks like a leftover set from Luc Besson's The Fifth Element) to be readied for the tournament. Mentored by the drunken but savvy former champion, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and given a makeover by the empathetic Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the teens strategize how to survive the bloodsport while winning much-needed favors from potential benefactors.
Ross, who co-scripted the film, doesn't exactly bring a unique point of view, style or any new thematic ideas to The Hunger Games, but he tackles the material efficiently and tastefully. The contest never feels as brutally exploitative as it might, and he strikes just the right balance between dread and excitement. While many of the action scenes are jumbled to the point of incoherence (fast cuts and wobbly frames) the violence brings with it enough discretion and dramatic weight to make clear the grim fate of its underage participants while toeing the line set by its PG-13 designation. To be honest, however, the subject matter alone should give parents of young teens pause.
Where Ross excels as a director is in creating a world that mostly feels authentic and lived in. While the Capitol fails to convince with its chintzy mix of ancient Roman and Nazi German iconography, District 12's Appalachia and the forested game fields for the competition are well-realized. More cannily, The Hunger Games exploits the audience's understanding about the rhythms and conventions of modern reality TV to provide much-needed exposition and context. This not only provides opportunities to explain the lethality of, say, an opportune wasp nest, but to also remind us that Katniss must play to her television audience in order to survive. Her smiles, her clever responses, and perhaps even a well-timed kiss, are all part of the manipulation.
Similarly, Ross demonstrates his prowess with visual storytelling, trusting audiences to pick up on subtle character choices and nuances. Katniss is a quiet and reactive character and so the movie works overtime to effectively take us into her POV. If there's a major complaint, it's that the physical torment of the games — the hunger, cold, disease and exhaustion — are mostly overlooked. Aside from some aesthetically positioned wounds, Peeta and Katniss seem as fit to fight at the end as they did in the beginning.
Nevertheless, Ross is aided by a convincing and talented cast. Stanley Tucci is amazingly smarmy as show host Caesar Flickerman, Harrelson conveys damaged nobility in his underwritten role, Kravitz surprises with his geniality, and Donald Sutherland is blandly wicked as the dictatorial President Snow.
But it's Jennifer Lawrence and her strong but human approach to Katniss that makes the film special. Proving that her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone was no fluke, Lawrence delivers as both a bona fide actor and a movie star. She has the charisma and talent to sell her character's ingenuity and courage while making clear her mortal doubts. It's not often that an actor can take a potentially iconic hero and breathe a rich inner life into it. Whatever shortcomings the film may have, Lawrence's performance makes me hunger for the next chapter in Katniss Everdeen's adventure.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.