“The Hunger Games” My rating: B+ (Opens wide March 23)
142 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
The champion — the warrior who enters the arena and through single combat carries the hopes and dreams of his countrymen on his shoulders — is as old as Troy or David and Goliath.
But it gets a highly satisfying updating in “The Hunger Games,” the big-budget adaptation of the first novel in Suzanne Collin‘s best-selling series of young adult fiction.
This is a smart, well-acted and effectively directed bit of dystopian fantasy, one so vastly superior to the “Twilight” franchise that this is the last time I’m even going to mention that endless slog through vampire romance.
In the hands of writer/director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”) “The Hunger Games” delivers a potent political/social allegory while giving actress Jennifer Lawrence one of the best roles a young actress could ask for.
Of course, Lawrence has a knack for gravitating to terrific roles, as evidenced by “Winter’s Bone.” And in fact the opening moments of “The Hunger Games” almost look like outtakes from that Ozarks drama.
Here a decidedly unglamorous Lawrence plays 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, resident of what appears to be an Appalachian coal mining town during the Great Depression. Most people appear rawboned and half-starved (there’s not a fatty in sight) and Katniss supplements her family’s meager diet by hunting (illegally) with bow and arrows.
Katniss — and all the other adolescents in the 12 districts that make up the nation of Panem — live in fear of the annual Reaping, a Shirley Jackson-ish lottery in which all children ages 12 to 18 must participate. A boy and girl from each district are selected as “tributes” to fight in the Hunger Games, a televised gladiatorial combat from which only one youngster will walk away.
When her young sister’s name is pulled from a bowl, Katniss volunteers in her stead, and with her male counterpart, a baker’s son named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), finds herself heading for the Capitol for days of training and evaluation before the blood game begins.
Mixing elements from the Roman arena, reality TV shows like “Survivor” and “American Idol” and films like “The Truman Show” — not to mention William Golding’s seminal “Lord of the Flies” — “The Hunger Games” deftly balances its social commentary against pure, adrenaline-fueled suspense.
Katniss and Peeta initially are overwhelmed by the Capital, whose elite residents live in splendor unimaginable to teens who have grown up in the impoverished districts. Members of this oligarchy (the “one percent” if you want to look at it politically … and I do) have built a city that reeks of overstatement: Radio City Music Hall as envisioned by the Nazis, Art Deco sleekness melded with Rococo overkill.
This is clearly a world of haves (residents of the Capitol exhibit a decadence beside which France’s pre-Revolutionary aristocrats look like cowled monks) and have-nots. In fact the Hunger Games are a punishment for a long-ago failed rebellion of the outer districts. The young combatants are even called “tributes,” a human sacrifice acknowledging the supremacy of the Capitol.
But the games serve another purpose. Like the Roman circus or the NFL, they pander to the masses, creating scenarios for a real-world, life-and-death soap opera. Starving is easier when you’re well entertained.
And that’s what the games are all about. TV shows handicap each year’s tributes and a Ryan Seacrest-ish commentator (Stanley Tucci in blue hair and oversized false teeth) interviews and fawns over the soon-to-be-deceased.
Collins’ social satire is nicely captured by Ross and company. The individual tributes are judged not only on their fighting promise but their personalities. Those who please the viewership can expect sponsors — rich folk who will pay big bucks to make sure that their favored tributes get special treatment (food, medicine) during the game.
The problem for Katniss is that she’s surly and suspicious, hardly a crowd pleaser. Luckily, she’s a wiz with a bow, which impresses the oddsmakers; moreover, when Peeta declares on national TV that’s he’s always been in love with her (this is news to Katniss), they become the “it” couple of the current games.
The game is played in a vast covered arena that can be “decorated” to approximate any environment, from Arctic waste to the ruins of a bombed-out city. This year’s battle is being fought in a sylvan forest — but a forest that offers dangers beyond the competitors themselves.
From a control room the gamemaster (Wes Bentley, sporting astonishingly Mephistophelian facial hair) can manipulate this world, turning day to night with the press of a button, creating weather conditions, starting forest fires, even unleashing unnatural predatory beasts (though we’re told that typically half the 24 tributes die of exposure, infection or dehydration). And in the middle of combat an announcement may issue from hidden loudspeakers, advising an arbitrary change in the rules.
On top of that, various contestants may form alliances so as to hunt down the weaker players trying to survive on their own. And of course every move of the combatants is captured by hundreds of thousands of video cameras so that fans at home can watch their favorites 24/7.
The major supporting roles are nicely fleshed out by Woody Harrellson as Haymitch, once a Hunger Games champion and now a drunken cynic, who is assigned to train Katniss and Peeta, and a nearly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as the appropriately named Effie Trinkett, the couple’s ditzy and heavily painted chaperone.
Donald Sutherland plays the President of Panem (more from him, no doubt, in the sequels) and Liam Hemsworth is the hunky guy Katniss left back home.
The star of the show, of course, is Lawrence, and she’s terrific, giving us a strong-willed, talented, but in no way cocky heroine. Moreover her Katniss harbors a slow-burning hatred of the entire system imposed by the Capitol … that will come in handy a couple of movies down the franchise.
Ross’ direction is generally exemplary. Early on he toys with the old shaky-cam cinematography but, blessedly, leaves it pretty much alone once the story gets underway. His handling of the actual game itself is first-rate action/suspense moviemaking — and all the more remarkable because Ross so effectively makes the film disturbing and gritty within the limitations of a PG-13 rating (the books are aimed at teen readers, after all). Much of the most gruesome violence takes place just off camera, which keeps the picture from becoming too overtly gory and spares the audience the discomfort of wallowing in the graphic deaths of children.
The film’s main shortcoming is that the Katniss/Peeta romance doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the movie’s political/social themes. I’m not sure that could be avoided, for in a way the relationship has been contrived to give the two tributes a better chance in the arena…it’s more a publicity move than a genuine commitment.
For me, the film in its final passages feels a bit out of balance. I wanted more genuine emotion.
But that’s a minor criticism of a very successful piece of popular art/entertainment. This movie will be huge, and I can’t remember the last time (maybe the very first “Star Wars” movie) when I so eagerly anticipated the next movie in the series.