I have read “The Hunger Games” trilogy, but I won’t comment on the movie’s faithfulness to Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel. Judged on its own merits, however, the first number in the series—now available on DVD—is an absorbing, well-acted and carefully-directed film, worthy of the critical acclaim and the international box-office success it has enjoyed. The cast is uniformly strong, but at its center is the performance of previous Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as the novels’ heroine, Katniss Everdeeen.
A strong-willed, independent 16-year-old supporting her mother and her younger sister, Primrose, in the hard-scrabble coal region here called “District 12,” Katniss first demonstrates her bravery when she volunteers to take her sister’s place in the lethal contest that pits twenty-four young people against each other. The government of Panem, a cross between the Third Reich and contemporary America, holds these annual games to distract and punish its citizens for a rebellion over seventy-four years earlier.
Now heavily centralized in the capital, a sort of decadent Oz where the citizens look and dress with extreme artifice, the ruling class—like the other 99% of Panem—watch eagerly as the Games play out in a fashion disturbingly familiar to reality TV fans. (Think “American Idol Meets Survivor,” only with weapons.) Viewers will also catch echoes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” in which one person is chosen as a blood sacrifice for the good of the community. Here, though, the contestants (called “Tributes”) are all teenagers: some waifs like little Rue and some volunteer killing machines from the richer districts—the Yankees of their era, skilled with harpoons and machetes rather than bats and gloves. The rest are pretty ordinary teens, who are killed early on, a cannon booming to mark each death.
The game is “played” in a forested arena, which the producers manipulate and comment upon, a la “The Truman Show.” Sponsors can send aid to favored contestants via mechanized parachutes. The rules are announced and changed after the fact on loudspeakers, and ubiquitous cameras and mikes catch the most intimate moments as well as the gory main action. Alliances form and dissolve, the Tributes seeking out any foothold they can gain to stay alive.
Katniss’s superior knowledge of the natural world she normally inhabits and her archery skills provide her chief advantage, along with her courage and, ultimately, her compassion. Her fellow District 12 Tribute, baker’s son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is stronger than she is, but lacks her savvy and daring. Oh, and he has a long-standing crush on Katniss, making him the third leg of a triangle with the boy back home, Gale (Liam Hensworth).
The two are “mentored,” after a fashion, by a drunken, disillusioned former winner, Hamitch (Woody Harrelson), and introduced to the capital by the appropriately named Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, going way over the top). They are interviewed by emcee Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and directed by the game’s producer, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), both of whom are overseen by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Both stars and supporting cast acquit themselves well, their acting by turns stylized and realistic. The contrasting styles are mirrored in the scenes of the decidedly unnatural city and the world of forest and stream, masterfully captured by Tom Stern, employing a full range of cinematographer’s tools. He is bolstered by three excellent film editors, who combine to make the chase and fight scenes especially gripping. Director Gary Ross occasionally slows the pace too far for too long, but these moments do set off the furious action.
The film is rated “PG-13” for obvious reasons, though there has been some dispute, considering the amount of bloodletting. Given the target audience, though, I think the rating is about right for teenagers, versed as many of them already are in video games. In any case, they are likely to understand best the feeling of being at odds with the adult society that wants to push them in ways they don’t want to go. And the story confronts them with a political and moral subtext that they—and we adults who have produced this world of bread and circuses—need to consider.