A pop-culture phenomenon like The Hunger Games usually means dealing with its more fervent fans in addition to the material itself. These are the folks looking not for a debate, but new recruits into the cult. They grip you by the arm, eyes gleaming with fervent certainty, and ask if you’ve seen the incredible masterpiece du jour that will change your life in deep and meaningful ways. They often end up subverting their own cause in the process, both by building up the material in ways it can’t possibly meet and by quietly denying the outsider a chance to make up his or her own mind.
Thankfully, we’ve gotten used to such reindeer games over the last few years, and with the Twilight series pretty well depantsed by now, we’re able to take the fervor over The Hunger Games with a bracing grain of salt. It keeps expectations from getting out of hand, and also helps the good-but-not-great film adaptation display its strengths without having to deny its weaknesses. This is not a perfect movie, though from what I’m told it’s very accurate to the young adult novel from whence it sprang. It has, however, been made with diligence and respect: overcoming the occasional rough spot to deliver a faithful and interesting sci-fi adventure.
It doesn’t hurt to have the excruciating Twilight series as a competitor, against which it looks like Citizen Motherfucking Kane. The Hunger Games actually contains dialogue worth listening to, a story with a coherent point, and characters who demonstrate strength and resilience instead of petulant entitlement. In the far future, the nation of Panem rules over what was once North America. Those in the capital district live lives of decadence and prosperity, while the 12 outlying districts under their control languish in poverty and despair. As punishment for a long-crushed uprising, each district must deliver one boy and one girl to the capital every year for participation in “The Hunger Games,” a televised death match in which they battle against each other until only one remains.
This year sees a rare volunteer to the Games: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), from the dilapidated coal mining District 12, takes the place of her younger sister in the queue. From the beginning, she looks to make some noise; though bereft of the social skills that let contestants shine the lead-up to the games, she’s a born survivalist and a dead shot with a bow. She also possesses enough iconoclasm to strike back against her handlers in quiet ways and to understand the fundamental injustice of what she’s going through. That may not be enough for her to survive the upcoming ordeal, but it certainly gives her a fighting chance.
Said ordeal takes up the final half of the film, and suffers from a lot of fits and starts. At times, director Gary Ross taps into potent emotions, with the children embracing their Lord-of-the-Flies monstrosity to the passive approval of a televised audience. Other times, he spins his wheels to no avail, particularly with an unconvincing romance and similar moments in Katniss’s ordeal. You can sense the material constantly working to assert itself and when it does, the results are incredible. But The Hunger Games can’t always sustain that energy, leading to slow and laborious lags in its otherwise reliable narrative.
Furthermore, its origins as a young adult novel means that it needs a PG-13 rating to bring in the audience for which it is intended. That means pulling its punches more often than it should: veering away from the all-too-real savagery that could have driven its points home. Teens are smart and can handle a little additional darkness without too much of a fuss. Unfortunately, the ratings board sees otherwise and the demands of the market end up robbing The Hunger Games of the potency it deserves.
The initial set-up does much better for itself, giving us a chance to explore this world while endearing us to our heroine in the process. Lawrence shines as always: a young woman who hasn’t let the cold realities of life break her and who understands the world far better than her so-called betters give her credit for. She makes an ideal guide to this futuristic society, as the Appalachian squalor of her subjugated district gives way to the hi-tech capital, where Lady Gaga clones rule with an iron fist. It’s a strange and striking sight, but thanks to the film’s earnest approach, it works quite well. Ross does a great deal with comparatively limited effects, conveying through inference and suggestion (as well as a flamboyant costume designer) rather than spectacle. It’s a good thing too because some of the money shots reflect Lionsgate’s typically wodgy CGI… especially a grand finale that feels like anything but.
Even with that burden, however, The Hunger Games convinces us of its authenticity, giving the storyline room to breathe in the process. It’s not the most original narrative ever devised – Battle Royale remains an obvious inspiration, though it also owes a debt to Stephen King’s novel The Long Walk – but it brings enough wrinkles to the formula to create an identity of its own. Credit for that likely goes to Suzanne Collins, who wrote the novel after a career spent writing for television. The film’s none-too subtle satire of the media’s voraciousness and our willingness to be blinded by its sheen works by not overplaying its hand, and by letting the universe carry it rather than altering the world to fit its needs.
That keeps the movie lively, despite its lengthy running time, and should make fans of the book happy without losing the rest of us. Its blockbuster status is practically guaranteed and the filmmakers might have used that as an excuse to slack off. Thankfully, they know better, finally delivering unto us a tweener franchise worthy of a little hoopla. The Hunger Games benefits most from its main character, with whom we sympathize without hesitation. We used to take such figures for granted, but recent unpleasantness has taught us otherwise. Baby steps are required as we move away from Twilight, and this effort does the job nicely. Even better: the filmmakers have two more films to capitalize on the good will it generates.