If I had read the books, I would perhaps have had a greater emotional involvement with Gary Ross’ film adaptation of The Hunger Games—though reading the book shouldn’t be a requirement to get the good out of the movie. And while I recognize the positive impact of the local and area filming—as well as the positive impact that a huge hit like this has on a movie year stuck in the doldrums—the best I can say about the film on its own merit is that it’s massively OK. Strip away the often silly production design and the even sillier “futuristic” make-up and costuming (in the future, will everyone with money really dress like they’ve stepped out of a touring company of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert?), and there’s a reasonably solid action picture underneath. No more—despite intimations of something weightier and subversive—but certainly no less.
Assuming for the moment that there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know the premise, the film is set some vague time in the future when North America has become something called Panem (which is Latin for bread) that is divided into 13 districts lorded over by a capital referred to as the Capitol—but which comes across a lot like the Emerald City. It’s controlled by President Snow (Donald Sutherland, smartly underplaying). In order to memorialize when the Capitol successfully put down a rebellion by the 12 outlying districts 75 years earlier, the rulers have established the Hunger Games. This also serves to continue to punish the rebel districts and to demonstrate the absolute authority of the Capitol. The idea is that two contestants—called tributes—between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen from each district by lottery. The hapless 24 are then pitted against each other in a fight to the death in the woods—with only one winner. (Kind of like ancient Rome without the coliseum, but with children and TV coverage.)
The story focuses on Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence in a role not very different, albeit sometimes more glamorous, from the one in Winter’s Bone), who hails from District 12 (which would appear to be located in Shakycam, Appalachia, where they’re too poor to afford a tripod). She’s unusual in that she volunteered to become a tribute in order to take the place of her little sister. Of slightly less interest is her fellow tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who once threw her a loaf of burned bread from his mother’s bakery. (Why he’s called Peeta, I don’t know. Maybe he was named by a Bette Davis impersonator.) There is, of course, some kind of burgeoning romance here, which is not only complicated by the oafish hunk back home (Liam Hemsworth, The Last Song), but by the reality that one of them has to die in the games. There’s a double-mickey plot twist for this, which I won’t reveal, but which—like most of the film’s surprises—you’ll probably predict.
There are agreeable bits in the film. Woody Harrelson as the pair’s perpetually soused trainer gives quite the best performance in the film. It’s hard to actually fault any of the performances, but most of the actors just aren’t given especially memorable material to work with. The games themselves are exciting enough—if numerous points are pretty predictable—but I doubt I’ll remember much about them down the line. The whole film, while adequate and entertaining, feels altogether too safe. (Well, they picked the right director for safe.) Certainly, it’s too safe to make the kind of subversive impression suggested by the whole concept of an oppressive government and an extreme version of reality TV. Without reading the sequels or knowing anything about them, I have a pretty good idea where this is leading, and the follow-up films may be a bit braver than this one. As it is, this one is solid enough, but for a non-fan fairly unremarkable. Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images—all involving teens.