Suzanne Collins‘ young adult novel The Hunger Games isn’t particularly well-written, but it’s undeniably cinematic. Collins’ paints a strange, brutal world with a hint of social commentary wrapped in a melodramatic love story and intense action. For the film adaptation, director Gary Ross has created an effective and memorable experience that’s deadly serious and seriously entertaining. Rather than playing into the blockbuster elements of the novel, he takes a subdued approach where less is more and “more” is darkly and comically grotesque. The movie remains tied to the weaker aspects of the book, especially the anti-climactic finish and lightweight social commentary, but terrific performances from the cast and Ross’ superb direction paint a potent and compelling picture.
At an unspecified point in the future, America was broken into 12 districts ruled by the Capital. When the districts attempted to rebel, they were crushed, and as punishment they are annually forced to submit two “tributes”, a boy and a girl each under the age of 18, to fight in The Hunger Games. The fight among the 24 tributes is to the death with only one tribute left standing. The Games are televised for the entertainment of the capital and as a cruel reminder of the districts’ subjugation. When 11-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is selected as District 12’s female tribute, her loving and fiercely-protective sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawarence) volunteers to take her place. Katniss heads to the Capital with non-volunteer tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), their chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and their drunken, surly mentor and former Hunger Games champion Haymitch Aberdeen (Woody Harrelson). Once there, she encounters two disturbing worlds: the colorful and twisted society of the Capital followed by the violent, bloody arena of the Games.
Ross quickly establishes the tone by using title cards to explain the world and the games, and then leading with Katniss taking care of Primrose. There’s hardly any dialogue or music in the first scenes of the film. It’s a quiet, melancholy tension that runs throughout the movie, particularly when Katniss is in nature. Rather than resort to the Capra-esque uplift of his previously films Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games lives in the small moments like Katniss tucking in the back of Primrose’s shirt or Peeta trying to win over the Capital’s citizens before he even gets off the train. There are heightened emotions in The Hunger Games, but the movie rarely raises its voice when the main characters are on screen, and this stern solemnity makes the shrill sounds of the Capital even more effective.
Once the story arrives at the Capital, it’s clear that the costume and makeup departments had an absolute field day. The movie isn’t trying to depict a possible future as much as it’s symbolically demonstrating how the Capital’s citizens have almost become non-human from feeling excitement rather than disgust when they see kids kill each other. At first, the citizens’ appearances, like gamemaker Seneca Crane’s (Wes Bentley) crazy beard or host Caesar Flickerman’s (Stanley Tucci) bright blue hairdo illicit giggles from the audience, and while Ross doesn’t shut down the humor, he doesn’t want the style to be a release valve either.
The Hunger Games is an entertaining movie, but it constantly has to fight against the sensational to avoid undermining the story’s central theme. We’re never meant to admire the fashion and extravagance of the Capital’s citizens. They’re fools who have lost touch with humanity, and they look almost deformed as a result. Ross carries this disdain for the sensational into the games when he manages to take his PG-13 rating and turn it to his advantage. Collins’ book almost revels in the violence, but the movie wants to look away. This approach makes the onslaught more brutal when we see a quick blood smear or hear the sound of a body falling. In this way, Ross imbues the movie with a sense of danger, so even if you’ve read the book, the stakes feel real, and you’re stuck in a nightmare where an opponent could be lurking behind every bush or tree.
The atmosphere is intensified by the tremendous performances of the entire cast, and readers of the book should be pleased with every casting decision. Lawrence knows how to play the aloof, combative side of Katniss, but she also knows how to switch to the character’s compassion and vulnerability. The actress has slightly softened the edges of her terrific performance in Winter’s Bone and made the character fit within the world of The Hunger Games. But the standouts are Tucci and Hutcherson. Tucci provides some of the brief but welcome moments of comic relief, and his gigantic, toothy smile brings the film’s satirical edge to the forefront. His charisma is complimented by Hutcherson, who gets to provide an emotional connection whenever Katniss is busy being detached and guarded.
Hutcherson and Lawrence have strong chemistry, but one of the film’s breaking points is keeping their characters apart for too long. Ross manages to turn some of the novel’s weaker elements to his advantage, but the slavish devotion to all the major plot beats makes the movie share the book’s shortcomings. These weaknesses particularly begin to overwhelm the film near the end when it tries to force a delayed relationship, and then reaches an anti-climatic finish that serves the upcoming sequel rather than providing a strong conclusion to the current installment.
Hunger Games also never pushes its themes beyond an observation. Although the book has found a wide audience, it was intended for young adults, so its social commentary will probably feel fresh to those who never considered the use of entertainment as a protective distraction from the hardships of the non-privileged. It’s the airplane-read version of the self-centered dystopian futures seen in Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. The movie will likely cause a shrug from the adult members of the audience, but it’s an effective vehicle for getting adolescents to consider ideas they’ve never thought about before.
The highly-anticipated adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel can be a bit slavish and shallow at times, but it’s a remarkable adaptation by delivering passion and drama without the bombast of a traditional blockbuster. Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games spurns the gaudy and perverse desires of those who mindlessly crave entertainment, and instead offers something quietly captivating and thoughtfully crafted.