There’s so much surrounding The Hunger Games— socially, artistically, politically– that it’s hard to know where to start in writing a review about the latest pop-cultural literary and cinematic phenomenon. It feels somewhat gauche to begin by comparing Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ award-winning young adult novel to Twilight, to which it owes something of a debt, and it seems like jumping the shark to set out with declarative statements about its relevance to our country’s current national discourse and attitude on issues of class and status. And there’s something that sounds prejudicial about immediately pronouncing The Hunger Games as a shining example of what YA fiction can live up to, yet all of these things are true and should be part of any in-depth discussion of the film.
So I’ll begin somewhere simple: for all of the various controversies surrounding it, The Hunger Games is very, very good. In fact, it’s probably twice as good as it should be, but then, I said the same thing about the novel after reading it months ago. What Collins achieved with her novel is significant; she has injected very high-concept themes and ideas into a story about the coming of age and day to day struggles of a young woman living in a dystopic future version of America, all without dumbing them down or otherwise treating them lightly. If Ross’ efforts pale next to the source– and as expected, they do, but when is the movie ever better than the book?*– they nonetheless honor them and bring Collins’ vision to life with impressive verve.
That version of America is known as Panem (the first detail of many that hints at the novel’s heavy Latin influences), a war-torn country controlled by the upper class in the Capitol after a brutal conflict fought between its citizens and the denizens of the thirteen Districts that comprise the remainder of the nation’s territory. We’re told the Districts rebelled long ago, lost, and have since been punished annually with not only perpetual destitution but also the titular televised blood sport, in which two children, a boy and a girl between ages 12 and 18, are selected randomly from each District and forced to fight to the death in a government-designed and operated arena. Rules barely apply; two dozen youths go in, one comes out, and the only supplies they have are those they start the game with, those they scavenge for themselves, and those that they receive via audience sponsorships.
We’re coming up on the start of the 74 rendition of the games at the start of the movie, where we meet our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a resident of District 12 who is an experienced hunter and the primary provider for her family. Unsurprisingly, the resourceful young woman comes to represent the female tribute of her District after volunteering for her sister, Prim, who has just entered for the first time. She’s joined by Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), both are ushered off to the Capitol, and, inevitably, pushed into combat. Ultimately, though, the game isn’t the true point. No, the real meat of The Hunger Games lies in the journey our principals take to get there and also in visually exploring the enormous disparity between the worlds of the haves and the have-nots. Roughly half of the film comprises the game itself (give or take), while the rest of it focuses on world-building.
Ross takes us on a tour through the mining town Katniss and Peeta hail from (and which is painted with shades of 2010’s Lawrence-starring Winter’s Bone) before whisking us off to the Capitol, a place of blinding, colorful excess that resembles a distant, haute couture cousin of Star Wars‘ iconic Cantina scene. What we see of life in District 12 is rough enough on its own merits; the reality of how its people live, however, becomes an even greater outrage as frame after frame of footage in the Capitol is stuffed with endless, gaudy, glitzy indulgence. If the film has a single takeaway, it should be rank disgust at how high the elites of Panem live while the majority of the country’s population knows nothing but hardship.
And therein lies the heart of The Hunger Games. This is cinema of discontent produced in a time where the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than ever. It’s hard to watch the movie without recalling recent real-world events steeped in frustration over widening class inequalities, notably the Occupy Wall Street movement that defined much of 2011’s final months. The massive success of the Twilight films may serve as the greatest impetus in transposing The Hunger Games from the page to celluloid, but the film’s central messages are so timely and contemporary that chalking its production up to a mere cash-in attempt would be shamefully reductive. (Just as it would be dismissive to label it a Battle Royale rip-off; if anything The Hunger Games proves that a good story is always about more than its influences.)
Square in the middle of the film’s depiction of political struggle and grim child violence (and there is plenty of that, though Ross has tricks up his sleeve to disguise and mitigate it) stands Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence has already proven herself as an actress– see the aforementioned Winter’s Bone— and with her portrayal of the stoic, self-possessed, protective Katniss Everdeen, she’s very nearly outdone herself. Filtered through Lawrence’s talents as an actress, Katniss is in turns vulnerable and guarded, a consummate survivor whose brave face hides a past defined by trauma and the scars of living in Panem; more often than not she’s the most mature, collected person in the room, but for all of her steely qualities Lawrence still finds the character’s emotional core and brings her to some truly impressive displays of grief, despair, love, and rancor. Her supporting cast, mostly, fares well, but even the best of them– notably Woody Harrelson as Katniss and Peeta’s bitter alcoholic mentor– are present only to help Lawrence shine, just as some of the characters they portray are dedicated to helping Katniss win.
The Hunger Games isn’t without its weaknesses; in the adaptation process, small but vital details are left out, which may make the movie a bit difficult to understand for those who haven’t read the book. And for all of the smart, economical choices Ross makes in crafting his film, he’s just as prone to making poor decisions as well; shaky cam only befits the action every once in a while, and for the most part it’s just distracting and slipshod. When Ross shoots action straight on, it looks great, so I can only assume he goes into Greengrass mode for specific purposes, but there’s no sense of necessity or urgency– just disorientation. Yet the shortcomings do not keep The Hunger Games from being a thoroughly excellent, engaging, and thought-provoking work of cinema. It’s exciting that something this intelligent can be made for and marketed to the teen set, entertainment that speaks to important societal issues without over-simplifying them, and in fact it’s clever enough to spring its own traps on unaware viewers: In a film where we’re meant to feel contempt for the tyrannical Capitol government, how do we root for Katniss as she plays into their game?
*Apart from The Godfather.