The Hunger Games arrives in theaters under a mountain of publicity. Don't let the hype scare you off. The view from the top of that pile of advertising is refreshingly newsworthy and relevant, words we don't often use in describing broad-stroke, violent fantasies pitched at PG-13 audiences.
That's because the story — adapted from the first volume of author Suzanne Collins' phenomenally popular trilogy of young-adult novels and directed by Gary Ross — captures the spirit of the times in clear, deliberate terms. In an unspecified future date in which the former USA has become the nation of Panem (as in the Latin phrase panem et circenses, or "bread and circuses"), the ruling class in The Capitol demands from the under-classes in the country's twelve outlying districts an annual "Reaping," in which two children from the twelve-to-eighteen age group in each district are chosen to fight to the death for the amusement of the elite.
Thus the peasants, designated as "Tributes," kill each other; 24 contestants, last one standing wins. The Hunger Games serve two purposes in the decidedly decadent social fabric of Panem: to punish the proles for an earlier rebellion, and to help refocus the value system of the upper classes, otherwise maintained by fences, droid aircraft, heavily armed police, and omnipresent video surveillance.
District 12, where sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with her family, is a dead ringer for the worst parts of Appalachia: hills and hollers, coal mines, rickety shacks, pinched-faced residents searching high and low for something to eat. Katniss supplements her diet by hunting in the forest with her trusty bow and arrow, and has little time for romance with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a shy local kid who likes her. When the day of the Reaping comes, Katniss volunteers to take the place of her little sister Prim (Willow Shields) alongside the boy chosen by lot, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son. It so happens that Peeta has nurtured a crush on Katniss ever since the day he tossed her a burnt bread roll instead of giving it to his hogs. And now they're on the train to gladiator school and the inevitable painful, nationally televised death in the woodsy Hunger Games arena. They may eventually be forced to kill each other.
There's no use bringing up the scenario's resemblance to Battle Royale, The Running Man, 1984, or any "reality TV" show. The Hunger Games is 100-percent derivative, but it doesn't matter once we buy into Katniss and her ethic. Twenty-one-year-old actress Lawrence, more than anything else, lifts the film up and reestablishes it at precisely the right moment in the narrative. Her performance pushes the questionable sci-fi premise into another category in which we can relax and take note of author Collins' social intentions — plus the requisite violence, here substantially restrained.
Lawrence showed plenty of promise in Like Crazy, The Beaver, and X-Men: First Class, but it was her role as Bree, the hill-country heroine of Debra Granik's gritty drama Winter's Bone, that marked her as unique. The part of Katniss, a fiercely determined girl from the same hard-scrabble environment, enlarges on that previous character with the added touch of the mythic. Lawrence has a depth in her screen presence that cannot be taught. There's anger there, and resolve, and what can only be called stoicism — a bunch of descriptives seldom applied to beautiful Hollywood starlets. Not always pretty, but undeniably true to life. Or to our most idealistic conceptions of what life should be, take your pick.
Erstwhile freedom fighter Katniss is propped up by a strong cast of characters, heavy on the histrionics. Any dystopian fantasy that contains Donald Sutherland as the imperious president, Stanley Tucci as a supremely fatuous, purple-haired TV emcee, and Woody Harrelson as a drunken ex-gladiator who mentors the good guys, will always find a home somewhere. The key words to describe the members of the elite group of Panem are "effete" and "jaded." For the proles, "hungry" will suffice. But even the gnarliest of the Hunger Games alpha males, Cato (Alexander Ludwig), has a back story that can break your heart. Actor Hutcherson from The Kids Are All Right — like Lawrence a Kentucky native — makes Katniss' comrade in arms Peeta probably the most conflicted character in the piece. His indecision dovetails perfectly with her steadfast courage when the going gets bloody. Meanwhile, little Rue (the charmingly mousy Amandla Stenberg) comes close to grabbing the spotlight, temporarily, from Katniss.
Director Ross is a career screenwriter who helmed the unremarkable Seabiscuit and Pleasantville. Here, with a potential franchise in his lap, he wisely lets Collins' mythology and his visual sense set the pace. For all its frequently gaudy production design, this is more of a spectacle of personality than of set pieces. District 12 is a little too drab. The Capitol, full of privileged clowns like Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and white-uniformed police, is already on its slide to oblivion. It's a Las Vegas idea of a metropolis. The CGI pit bulls are frankly stupid, but nothing much else is.
Reviewers can be excused for occasionally growing calluses, particularly when walking into a movie promoted as aggressively as this one. The most heavily advertised products are all too often the shoddiest, idea-wise. On the way out of the theater, an ironic one-line critique came to mind: "Not cynical enough." It's very rare to encounter a relatively big-budget entertainment pitched at young audiences that doesn't seem calculated and/or superficial. But as it sank in, The Hunger Games erased almost every potential objection. There's not a shred of cynicism anywhere in it.
Let's not belabor the real-world resonance, but Collins' screenplay — adapted with director Ross and writer Billy Ray — has the makings of a populist legend, a cautionary tale of futile bravery, a thumbnail history of one possible future. Sutherland's saturnine President Snow has a short, incisive scene in which he explains to his assistant the importance of the Hunger Games. "Why do we have a winner?" he asks rhetorically. "Hope." For the leader of the ruling class, hope is a useful tool, a ruse for maintaining repression. For people like Katniss, it's all they've got in the world.