The opening minutes of Gary Ross’s adaptation of the teen-lit phenom The Hunger Games make it clear that Ross has brought serious consideration to what could easily have been a cashed-in afterthought of a movie. Our first look at District 12, the rural, working-poor area that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) calls home, seems to deliberately echo Lawrence’s breakout role in Winter’s Bone, complete with intimate handheld camera work, elaborately dirtied locales and denizens, and the sight of Katniss cradling her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) amidst the squalor. (Not to mention the scenes of hunting and squirrel-eating.) Despite some significant missteps, that disarming sense that Ross actually has a clear vision for the fantastical setting that’s grounded in real-world concerns, combined with the meta-textually rich aspects inherent in the source material, make for a surprisingly credible stab at high-concept entertainment with some semblance of creativity.
In the world of Suzanne Collins’s series, District 12 is the least prosperous out of the nation’s 12 sectors, where the coal miners and other working poor are consigned to a life on the margins. Every year, the Powers That Be (headed up by sinister president Donald Sutherland) summon one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 19 from each District to compete as “tributes” in a gladiatorial battle to the death from which there can only be one victor, as a commemoration of the state squashing an attempted rebellion decades previous. When young Prim is called as the sector’s tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place, alongside the male tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a physically capable but weak-willed sort seemingly unfit for combat.
While the story’s central conceit seems like a direct lift from Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, Games equally seems to draw on anticipatory reality-show lampoons like Series 7: The Contenders and The Truman Show, not to mention sci-if/action staples like The Running Man. The Games are witnessed by a rapt nationwide audience, and the 24 participants can court sponsors by kowtowing to audience sympathies; sponsors, in turn, can throw favored contestants a bone in the form of desired amenities. In the film’s canniest touch, Peeta comes to realize early on that the appearance of a romantic link between the two contestants would maximize audience investment, which Katniss reluctantly agrees to go along with. (This sense of self-awareness is the only respect in which Peeta is superior to Katniss; in all others, he’s the lamb to her lion, a sense that’s only bolstered by Lawrence’s sturdy, curt performance.)
The way in which Katniss and Peeta’s handlers cheer on this development seems to almost serve as a sneering indictment of the blasé romantic nature of cynical youth-targeted fictions a la Twilight, with every embrace equally plausible as either a genuine exchange of affection or a ploy for survival. More broadly, the manner in which the pair realize the advantages of audience manipulation suggests they’ve simply inherited the state’s gift for spin, turning the master’s tools against him. The film is punctured with a mild revolutionary air, heightened by scenes of violent uprising and a head of state who speaks of the value of a little “hope.” (Sound familiar?)
Given the youth-slaughtering subject matter, in which kids too young to see a PG-13 movie unaccompanied are cut down, it’s appropriate that Ross pushes the rating as far as it can go in terms of screen violence, ensuring that the brutality inherent in the Games concept stays intact. Also intact, presumably laid out in the novel, are the garish color schemes and extreme indulgences of the city setting the contestants find themselves in once they’ve been selected for participation. While the visual differentiation from the washed-out hellscape Katniss comes from is effective, the cityscape suffers from bland design and CGI that needed another pass or two to be remotely convincing as a genuine, steel-and-sleaze metropolis, and the hair and costume design take the theme of corrupt decadence a little too far.
Thankfully, where Ross stumbles a bit on effectively crafting a coherent, viable fantasy/sci-fi universe, and he’s far from a stellar action director (the one-on-one scuffles, especially, are difficult to follow at the best of times), he does more important succeed in locating the emotional and political cores of his story, not to mention exploiting the hell out of them. With The Hunger Games as the first in a planned trilogy of films, Ross and company (or whoever handles future installments) would do well to honor the lightly subversive undercurrents along with the teenage wish fulfilment, each strengthens the other.