The Hunger Games takes audiences to a future, decades after an apocalyptic war, where the North American continent consists of one nation, Panem, run by a dictatorial regime in the Capitol. The rest of Panem consists of twelve districts, exploited by the wealthy and indolent ruling class in the Capitol, which both intimidates the districts and entertains them through the annual Hunger Games, a Survivor-type reality show that takes one boy and girl from each district and forces them to kill each other, until only one “tribute” is left alive. Katniss Everdeen saves her younger sister chosen in the lottery for District 12 by volunteering, after which she and her friend Peeta get whisked to the Capitol for a couple of weeks of training, high-class living, and media saturation. When the games begin, will the odds be with Katniss and Peeta?
The film comes from a popular young-adult novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins, but if you haven’t read it (I have not), you’ll still be familiar with the story, because it’s so derivative it’s hard to know exactly where to start the comparisons. There are elements that remind one of “The Lottery,” the famous short story by Shirley Jackson, films like The Running Man and Rollerball, perhaps a dash of The Handmaid’s Tale and a bit of The Truman Show, and almost every post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy ever filmed or even contemplated. The people in the districts come straight out of The Grapes of Wrath and Matewan, while the Capitol looks more like a more lively version of the Eternals in Zardoz, whose wealth is only exceeded by their garish and conspicuous consumption, and equally exploitative consumption of the “tributes” who will play in the games. (Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket looks like she was airlifted from a Tim Burton shoot.) The obvious Roman gladiatorial references get even more heavy-handed treatment with the names of the characters in the Capitol, like Caesar, Claudius, Octavia, Flavius, and so on. The tributes even have to learn to kowtow to the wealthy in order to gain patrons that might assist them during the course of the games, which makes the exploitation about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
It takes a long time to develop the story, while at the same time providing little coherent explanation of what exactly all of this means. The motivation for the deadly Olympiad is explained as a reminder not to rebel, but the idea of randomly killing the children of serfs for the sport of the obscenely rich doesn’t sound like a convincing way to keep a population under control. It takes forever to get past all of the incoherent back story to get to the game itself, where Katniss’ backwoods upbringing comes in handy for her survival. The game is bloody and violent, although most of the violence (with a couple of exceptions) is blurred and quick-cut, presumably to preserve the PG-13 rating.
Watching teenagers and children kill each other (at least one looks to be about eight or nine years old) prompts the question of why children and teenagers would get chosen for this in the first place by a dictatorial regime, other than the author’s need to write a book for young adults. I’m sure it’s meant as an allegory for war as well as class exploitation, but it’s both ridiculous and grotesque. Given that The Hunger Games provides us nothing about almost all of the other 22 children in the games, it feels like they get treated by the film much the same way they get treated by the ruling class — as cannon fodder for their own purposes. The end of the film feels very anticlimatic, with a last-minute twist one could see coming a mile off, and from which the story almost immediately retreats anyway. Nothing changes as a result of the events in the movie, not even character growth. It literally feels like a complete waste of time when the credits roll.
The cast does a good job overall with what they’re given, but Donald Sutherland and Wes Bentley are wasted in their parts. Stanley Tucci has fun in his over-the-top portrayal as the emcee Caesar Flickerman, while Woody Harrelson has less fun with the more substantial role of Haymitch, former Hunger Games survivor and the assigned “mentor” to Katniss and Peeta. The movie rests on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, but she’s not terribly compelling or interesting. Lawrence doesn’t display much emotional range, offering the same steely-eyed glare for most of the film. The cinematography makes extensive use of the modern shaky-camera and ultra-close-up “documentary” techniques that supposedly gives a film a realistic look, but mainly drives people up the wall.
The audience with whom I saw this was largely composed of teenagers, and they seemed to enjoy the film a lot more than I did, so take that into consideration. It’s rated PG-13, which surprised me a little with the occasionally graphic violence in the film. It’s far too intense for children, but teenagers would probably handle it with little difficulty. The odds may be with them to find this enjoyable, but anyone older will have seen all of this before, and done better.