‘The Hunger Games’ Review
Funny that a movie called 'The Hunger Games' would gorge itself on fan service until it choked on its own source material. Those who've read Suzanne Collins insanely popular young adult novel will no doubt be enraptured by Gary Ross' detailed adaptation. Those who haven't (myself included) will be left on the outside of a phenomenon looking in, confused by bizarre storytelling choices whose only possible rationale is "because that's how it was in the book."
That's not to say the core concept is unappealing. Collins' premise is an intriguing one, albeit indebted to past fight-to-the-death-for-the-amusement-of-a-dystopian-society movies like 'The Running Man' and 'Battle Royale.' In a dark future, North America has been destroyed by war and segmented into 12 districts, all under control of a despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) all forced to compete in the annual Hunger Games, in which one male and female teenager from each district is randomly chosen and forced to battle in an arena until just one remains. In the coal mining lands of District 12, a 16-year-old amateur bowhunter named Katniss Everdeen (21-year-old Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers for the Hunger Games after her sister gets selected as "Tribute." Alongside a boy named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the pair travel to The Capitol, where they are primped, trained, and treated like royalty -- or at least reality television stars -- before they are dumped in the arena and left to fend for themselves in televised combat.
High school can feel like a bloodsport sometimes, so a property about high school as a literal bloodsport is flat-out ingenious. The best scenes in 'The Hunger Games' are those within the actual Games themselves, when factions and cliques form the way they would in a cafeteria, and suddenly the pretty, popular kids are systematically bumping off the squirrelly looking dudes with curly, ginger afros. The fact that 'The Hunger Games' is a fight to the death, and that one only one character can survive -- and that we like several of them, including Katniss and Peeta, and know they'll all have to die before we reach the end of the film -- lends the combat a palpable sense of dread.
But Ross, working from a screenplay he wrote with Collins and Billy Ray, lends the first half of the film a palpable sense of boredom. Huge chunks of time are spent introducing characters and concepts who ultimately don't really matter except to 'Hunger Games' obsessives who want to see every single facet of the source material brought to life onscreen. Several scenes, for example, are spent with the team from District 12, which includes a former Hunger Games victor turned alcoholic named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and a woman who looks like Lady Gaga joined the cast of 'The Fifth Element' (Elizabeth Banks), scheming about ways to recruit "sponsors," because, we're told, they're crucial to winning the Games. How crucial? So crucial they're basically never mentioned again once the Games begin.
Once the Games do begin, the tension mounts and Ross does a fine job of putting us inside the mind of his tough but frazzled protagonist (Lawrence, for her part, puts her sparkling, soulful eyes to good use in every scene). Ross' manipulation of sound is particularly interesting, with drastic cuts and effects indicating every shift in Katniss' mental state. But the intense focus on our heroine comes with drawbacks, too: inside the Games, Ross drops most of references to the fact that this is a "reality television show" of the future, along with most of his most interesting themes. When people start rioting in the streets after one particularly dramatic moment, it's not entirely clear why; or why the Capitol holds these Hunger Games in the first place if they're intended to mollify the public but actually wind up doing the opposite.
'The Hunger Games' seems to have been engineered with a similar mindset: mollify the base, keep them happy, and the rest will fall into place. It never really did. If you've never read Collins' novels, the odds that you'll enjoy the film are not in your favor.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on 'Ebert Presents at the Movies.' He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie 'Gymkata.'