Unlike the last young adult sensation, Twilight, The Hunger Games is actually easy to understand for those who missed the initial hype. The novel, by Suzanne Collins, takes place in a future, post-apocalyptic North America, where war and ecological disaster have left the population under the control of a totalitarian government. To maintain order, the leaders of Panem—from the Latin panem et circenses, or bread and circuses—have instituted an annual contest, where 24 young people ("tributes") are chosen from each of the twelve districts, and forced to fight to the death in a contest that is some combination of Lord of the Flies, The Most Dangerous Game, and the cult Japanese film Battle Royale.
The genius of the book was that it combined a familiar plot device—kids sent in a strange place and left to fend for themselves through any means necessary—with a scathing critique of reality show culture, an examination of class, and the question of personal versus political obligations. Characters in the novel, both those forced to fight and those forced to participate more generally, show or express disdain for the spectacle, and the government that sponsors it. And while Collins doesn't spend much time on the geopolitics of Panem, she does use her character to explore the experience of a world where the extremely privileged—the 1 percent, as it were—exploit the rest for profit and frivolity. When you get past its trappings, The Hunger Games is a story of inequality and injustice.
The same doesn't go for the movie adaptation. Where it succeeds is as a straightforward adaptation of the novel and its major events. Director Gary Ross, whose prior work includes Seabiscuit, does a great job of adapting the scenery of the book to screen. The Appalachia-inspired District 12 is appropriately soot-stained and stark, while the two other areas of action—the Capitol and the arena itself—are as you would imagine them: a shimmering city of decadence, and a quiet, beautiful forest, steeped with menace.
Ross also depicts the major scenes and set pieces of the novel with flare. The "Reaping," where a representative of the central government (an almost unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) chooses the boy and girl to serve as tribute in a televised death match, is appropriately somber. And the long waiting period in the Capitol, as tributes prepare for the games, is filled with the worry and anxiety that comes with knowing that the only certainty is death. As for the Games themselves—which come at the midpoint of the film—they are suspenseful, and at times, genuinely scary. The only problem I have is with the editing—Ross uses a documentary-style shaky cam, and it's distracting; it makes it difficult for viewers to follow action scenes, and get a sense of the scenery.
The standout of the film, as you've probably heard by now, is Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the heroine Katniss Everdeen with a stoic resolve reminiscent of her performance in 2010's Winter's Bone. Josh Hutcherson does a great job as Peeta Mellark, the sorrowful male counterpart to Lawrence's Everdeen, and Stanley Tucci was perfectly cast as Caesar Flickerman, host of The Hunger Games. Also worth mentioning is Woody Harrelson, who plays Haymitch Abernathy, a former winner of the Games and mentor to Katniss and Peeta, and Donald Sutherland, who plays the dictator President Snow with quiet menace (he has the final scene of the film, and it's great).
But, for as much as The Hunger Games succeeds as an adaptation of various scenes, it mostly fails as a take on the themes of the novel. The book, after all, is built around the ritual murder of children. Depicting this isn't easy; too much and you risk exploitation, too little and you leave the audience without the necessary horror. Unfortunately, Ross leans toward omission—with a few notable exceptions, the killing happens off screen. As a result, the Games don't seem so bad, even if we are watching an exercise in brutal violence. Characters also come in for major revision. Suzanne Collins depicts Haymitch as an almost broken man who sees the system for its full horror. In the movie, he's little more than a humorous drunk, and while that's also present in the novel, it co-exists with a pathos that we don't see and Ross doesn't try to portray.
Likewise, as Roger Ebert noted in his review, Ross shies away from the politics of The Hunger Games. The Katniss Everdeen of the book— acutely aware of her own poverty—is disgusted with the wealth and privilege of the Capitol, and from that stems part of her defiance. Indeed, it's impossible to understand the circumstances of characters like Rue and Thresh—tributes from the agricultural District 11—without a nod to the class dynamics of the world in which they exist.
It should be said that the politics involved aren't necessarily left-wing; with its rural/urban divide, and its open contempt for city dwellers (as represented by the Capitol), you could say that the books have a touch of conservative populism. The important thing, however, is that science fiction is the perfect place for these conversations—last year's In Time was an interesting, if heavy-handed, take on mobility inequality—and it's a shame Ross moved away from that direction.
If you're trying to make a decision about whether to see it, well, the film is good, and worth watching. But it's marred by Ross' reluctance to bring the themes and politics of the novel into his adaptation. Given the extent to which both grow in subsequent installments, it will be interesting to see how Ross proceeds with his sequels (which are almost certain to happen). My sense is that, in the end, we'll be disappointed.
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