Movie Review: The Hunger Games
A grim, persuasive version of the Suzanne Collins novel about teenagers who are forced to compete in an annual fight to the death in a dystopia of the future. Jennifer Lawrence is a steely heroine, and director Gary Ross makes the spectacle a grimly believable extension of reality TV.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth and Woody Harrelson
Rating: Four stars out of five
The violent dystopia of The Hunger Games became a cult sensation -- even eclipsing the mournful Gothic romance of Twilight -- for a good reason. Novelist Suzanne Collins invented a world that encapsulated a cultural nightmare: reality television meets high school, spiced with the twin adolescent suspicions of a grim future and adult perfidy.
The result is a story of teenagers forced to fight to the death for the grown-up crime of being rebellious, while a worldwide TV audience sits transfixed.
It evokes a mixture of desperation and star-crossed love, a manhunt-to-the-death that stands as a metaphor for both modern entertainment and yearning adolescence. And the whole school is there: the nice kids, the anonymous ones, the dangerous cliques. This is a teen epic with an adult face, YouTube with murder.
In The Hunger Games myth, an America of the future, called Panem, has undergone a civil war and emerged as a police state run from a tyrannical Capitol. In Gary Ross's film version, the set design combines fascist heroic architecture (grand plazas, oversized rooms) with Italian modern furnishings and fashions that look like what might happen if Lady Gaga were elected empress. It's all gold, glitter and curlicue hairstyles: One character wears a beard that's cut into a design of paisley.
Things aren't so grand in Panem's provinces, however. In District 12 -- a coal-mining area pictured as a forlorn territory of shacks and creased faces -- 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen has become an expert archer, killing squirrels to keep her family fed. Katniss (the names in The Hunger Games sound like what movie stars might be calling their children 100 years from now) is played by Jennifer Lawrence with the same steely intelligence she showed in Winter's Bone, a more contemporary nightmare of Ozarks culture.
The conquered rebels are forced to take part in a deadly retribution. Once a year, on "Reaping Day," two teenagers are chosen by lottery from each district, fed at lavish banquets -- The Hunger Games borrows a tone of immoral corruption from the last days of the Roman Empire -- trained in gladiatorial combat, and sent out to slaughter one another. The entire spectacle is shown on TV, including a pre-fight introduction hosted by an overbearing ringmaster (Stanley Tucci) that is part professional wrestling and part beauty pageant.
Katniss becomes a District 12 combatant when she volunteers to replace her younger sister. She is paired with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the town baker who has a crush on her, which adds to the tragedy: Only one survivor is allowed.
There's a triangle in all this, as well: Katniss must leave behind Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her old hunting friend. But that doesn't play out much in this first movie of a likely Hunger Games trilogy. It seems mostly designed to give Katniss the enviable problem (which of these two hunks should she choose?) that drives so much young adult fiction.
But Ross avoids the pitfalls that would make The Hunger Games too schmaltzy. He's had some experience in these matters: His 1998 comedy Pleasantville was almost The Hunger Games in reverse, with two teenagers transported back in time to live in an anodyne 1950s TV sitcom. That film evolved from black and white into rich colour; The Hunger Games is in colour, but feels dreary and washed-out. Ross is spare in his use of music, and he frequently uses a hand-held camera to give the film a documentary intimacy. He also avoids overly explicit violence.
The Hunger Games has a rich sense of history that bobs on the surface of its culture of grim amusement. In the glitzy world of the film's first half, Katniss and Peeta take part in lavish, pre-butchery feasts and then try ingratiate themselves to the "sponsors" who might help them later. "It's a television show," says Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a previous Hunger Games winner -- drunk much of the time, as he would be -- who is brought on board as a mentor. In a world-become-television, appearance is all.
Lurking in the shadows is President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the malevolent architect of the event, whose understanding of crowds -- the blood lust, the role of the underdog -- marks him as dangerously conniving. "A little hope is effective," he says. "A lot of hope is dangerous." He's not the first American leader to speak about hope, but he's the first to make it into a threat. The road between here and there may be shorter than we fear.