The Hunger Games isn’t just an adaptation of author Suzanne Collins’ bestselling YA novel. It’s also an update of various dystopian social critiques, from the dark rites-of-passage in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Logan’s Run; to the futuristic bloodsports of Death Race 2000 and Rollerball; to its closest comparison in tales of overwrought teenage violence and romance, Battle Royale. Even its aesthetic sensibilities remind the viewer of previous sci-fi touchstones, borrowing touches like the faceless police uniforms from THX 1138 (though switching the colors from black to white) and the flamboyant wardrobe and hairstyles of the idle rich in The Fifth Element. But far from being derivative, The Hunger Games takes all these reference points and molds them into a gripping narrative for the reality TV era, taking the notion of “bread and circuses” to its extremes.
In the nation of Panem, the wealthy Capitol dominates the political and economic affairs of its outlying 12 districts. Each year every district is compelled to offer two of its children – one boy and one girl – as tribute for a failed rebellion against the central governing power, which places them in a wildly popular televised fight to the death (picture the Olympics crossed with Survivor and cold-blooded murder). When her younger sister is selected as a tribute, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) impulsively volunteers to enter the competition in her stead. She’s whisked away to train for combat alongside sadistic “careers” who make the Games their life’s purpose and similarly befuddled teens like her sensitive schoolmate Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Once inside the arena, Lawrence must rely on the survival tactics of her hardscrabble upbringing and her skills as an accomplished bowhunter to keep herself alive and her moral identity intact.
The role isn’t much of a stretch for Lawrence, who already proved her mettle as a tough, resourceful teen navigating dangerous terrain in Winter’s Bone. She keeps the film grounded as it methodically lays out its premise in the selection of the pubescent tributes and their primetime debut in the Capitol. These exposition-heavy sequences are also the movie’s most satirically sound. As the elite reward the unfortunate youths with professional makeovers and gushing interviews, it’s a damning indictment of popular culture that normalizes the worst aspects of human nature.
After all that table-setting, the Games themselves are intense and disturbing. Gary Ross’ queasy cam and quick cutaways don’t diminish the senseless sacrifice of these young lives – despite the PG-13 rating, violence in The Hunger Games hits harder than any of the gonzo viscera in Battle Royale. The film as a whole doesn’t have much room to breathe as it’s chopped up into discrete halves focused on exposition and action. It’s a little overwhelmed by its own subject material, as if making a visible effort not to omit any important information: Stanley Tucci’s chipper Games MC is ubiquitous and a bit tiresome as the movie’s chattering Greek chorus. The film’s allusions to Roman decadence (character names include Caesar, Seneca, and Cinna) further establish a grandiose tone. I suppose we have to wait for the sequels – there are three novels in the Hunger Games series – to find out if it’s truly earned, but for now it’s like watching an epic in abridged form.