The long-awaited adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ book — perhaps the most brazenly subversive Young Adult Novel ever written — has finally been unleashed and has already broken box office records (bringing in almost $20 million from this morning’s midnight screenings alone). The somewhat surprising news is that the movie is actually not too bad. . . up to a certain point. Ultimately, though, director Gary Ross’ fairly entertaining, technically efficient interpretation falls short of becoming a true pop art classic, if only because the movie it should be is a movie that can never be made.
In a post-apocalyptic future, what remains of North America is now known as Panem, a nation consisting of 12 districts (impoverished and filthy) and the central Capitol (a kind of candy-colored variation on an Orwellian stronghold). As punishment for an earlier coup — and as a reminder of its complete and total dominion — the Capitol demands one boy and one girl from each District between the ages of 12 and 18 be chosen by random lottery to participate in the annual event known as The Hunger Games. Now in its 74th edition, the televised tournament (which is required viewing for everyone in Panem) consists of a series of violent tasks and challenges, at the end of which there will be only one “Tribute” left standing.
Jennifer Lawrence (looking rather well-fed for a supposedly starving teenager, but whatever) plays Katniss Everdeen, the female Tribute from District 12 (a coal-mining wasteland of what used to be Appalachia), a world-weary 16-year-old who volunteered for the Games in place of her younger sister, who was chosen in the lottery. She is sent to the Capitol, where she is presented to the masses as a sort of doomed celebrity, made to look nice and pretty by her personal stylist, Cinna (a nicely underplaying Lenny Kravitz), as she participates in pre-Games interviews with the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (an amusing Stanley Tucci). This being based on a Young Adult book, there’s a little romance going on, too — Katniss’ male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), carries a torch for the girl who is now technically his enemy, whilst the brawny Gale (Liam Hemsworth) completes the love triangle as the beau left back home.
After Katniss and Peeta are mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (the always welcome Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games champion who’s now succumbed to drink and cynicism, they’re off to the Games, where the 24 Tributes proceed to kill each other off, watched over by the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and head “Game-Maker” Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, sporting obnoxiously art-directed facial hair that’s rather distracting). Katniss, after 16 years of struggling to survive in the harsh living conditions of District 12, has become quite the skilled archer, though she soon realizes that there’s no way to truly “win” such an insane endeavor, prompting her to embark on a secret alliance with Peeta, one designed to beat the system at its own, well, Game.
Yeah, there’s a lot going on, and Ross handles the hefty narrative with confidence and efficiency. The film is fast-paced without seeming rushed (though the editing style is sometimes needlessly chaotic) and is visually much more impressive than the cheap-looking Twilight movies (the franchise to which this is inevitably being compared). Lawrence is particularly good as Katniss, though that should come as no surprise; she basically already played the part of a stubborn survivalist forced to grow up fast and take on the harsh cruelties of the world in Winter’s Bone. Harrelson is, as usual, good enough that you wish there was more of him, and Hutcherson, while stuck playing one of the film’s more underwritten parts, brings a kind of noble melancholy to his role that works well with Lawrence’s brooding. And Elizabeth Banks steals the show with her wonderfully deranged, funny-scary performance as Effie Trinket, a devil-woman thinly disguised as a clown who serves as the “escort” of the District 12 tributes.
However, as exciting as The Hunger Games often may be, it ultimately feels like a sham. It’s no one’s fault, really — it’s just simply impossible for a mass-market PG-13 movie out to make a billion bucks to capture the true horror, violence and rage of Collins’ novel. Ross and company have plenty of opportunities to take the film to terrifying places — it’s a story about kids killing each other on television, after all — but the studio-inflicted limitations of the film itself keeps them from truly probing what Collins was going for. The watered-down approach to such a harrowing premise actually makes The Hunger Games a little more disturbing than perhaps the filmmakers intended — by giving us only an idea of the violence (and by refusing to explore the story’s deeper sense of despair and loneliness), the movie is quite easy to take, turning a scathing satire (and, indeed, cautionary tale) featuring teen genocide into a popcorn movie of little consequence. It’s almost as if the movie has become the very piece of mass entertainment that Collins is warning us against.
This movie is going to make a ton of money and sell a lot of T-shirts. The fact that that qualifies as the filmmakers successfully doing their jobs over creating a truly courageous existential action film with a deep sense of loss and tragedy might be the most disturbing thing of all.