For once, don't be put off by the hype: the book may be written for young adults, but the movie is a thoroughly mature affair. That's the marvel of The Hunger Games, a film that transforms a popular work of teen fiction not just by faithfully exploring its themes but, more important, by proving those themes have a very grown-up resonance. Compare that to the Harry Potter or Twilight pictures which, however well adapted, always betray their juvenile origins - entertainingly juvenile, at best, yet still kids' stuff in an infantilized culture. But this is something different and darker - it's kids' stuff that speaks to and ominously dissects that culture; it's Lord of the Flies updated for the electronic age.
Wisely unwilling to step aside, Suzanne Collins, the writer of The Hunger Games plus the two books that complete the trilogy, has taken a hand in the screenplay, along with director Gary Ross, who wastes no time sinking the hook. Cut quickly but pointedly, the early frames lay out the richest part of the novel: its dystopian premise. In a future North America ravaged by ecological change, warfare, and a disappeared middle class, the nation of Panem is barbarously divided into the haves and the have-nots - the rich ruling regime in the Capitol, and their subjects in a dozen outlying districts beset by varying degrees of deprivation. Each year brings a "Public Reaping", wherein the young from the provinces are grimly harvested for the annual Hunger Games - a gladiatorial spectacle which has a boy and girl, ranging in age from 12 to 18, selected by lottery from each district to compete in a televised "fight to the death". The deadly ritual is promoted by the rulers as a surrogate for war, a catharsis that doubles as a circus, that sees hope vying with fear and the callow victims heralded as fallen heroes making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of peace.
Already, you can see the cleverness in the conceit. Simultaneously retro and futuristic, the script borrows as liberally from Roman epics and medieval lore as it does from reality TV and apocalyptic sci-fi. Engaging too are the set designs, which vividly supply the contrast between plenty and poverty - the pampered luxury, the neo-fascist architecture, the decadent fashions of the Capitol, where the big wigs literally wear big wigs of imperial purple; versus the poverty, the near-starvation, the grinding misery of the Appalachian miners in District 12, where the lottery ball is poised for the Reaping. There, children are lined up at the train tracks for selection (the echo of other children selected for other trains is deliberate). When blind chance settles on her terrified little sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her stead. The young warrior is transported to her fate, as the ubiquitous camera looks on and the smarmy TV host (a gloriously wiggy Stanley Tucci) cheerfully warbles the mantra du jour: "Happy Hunger Games and may the odds be ever in your favour".
When the setting shifts to the affluence of the Capitol, two threads quickly emerge. The first is a narrative addition, furthering the premise. The young contestants, called "tributes", are gussied up in designer uniforms, paraded in an opening ceremony that combines the prettiness of the Oscars with the pomp of the Olympics, and subjected to rigorous basic training by the survivors of previous Games (Woody Harrelson among them). Also, the reality TV component gets amped up. The show's producers and their masters, the sponsors, are on the lookout for telegenic tributes and for cute story angles guaranteed to boost ratings. When Katniss's fellow draftee Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) confesses to having a crush on her, the news is greeted with joy by the media hounds: "I can sell the star-crossed lovers from District 12".
That's when the second thread appears. Purely thematic, this one drags the retro and futuristic elements smack into the present day. Suddenly, the metaphor hits home, with the stark realization that the entertainment we're watching here is alarmingly similar to the "entertainment" we've watched too often before. A wealthy nation recruits its warriors from the ranks of the impoverished young, dresses them up in uniforms, packs them off to wage war against the impoverished young of other nations. The media and their sponsors rush to televise the conflict, pointing cameras in eager pursuit of bigger audiences and swollen coffers. Individual soldiers are sought out for their human interest value and, when the bloody circus turns tragic, the callow victims are heralded as fallen heroes making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of peace.
At this point, the kids' stuff fiction collides with the kids' stuff fact, and adults are obliged to ponder the real world we have wrought, a world where adolescents do indeed fight wars while their elders do indeed watch with profitable interest. The penny drops: Panem's reality TV is our televised reality - the future is now.
Consequently, as the long (too long) third act plays out on the killing fields, the sight of children slaying children should give us pause. So should the attendant sight of TV producers manipulating the coverage to heighten viewer satisfaction, especially the love-angle between Katniss and Peeta. Of course, that same love-angle helps to power this movie, which shrewdly capitalizes on precisely what it satirizes - a delightful bit of meta-fiction. Alas, the ending feels abrupt and loose, perhaps inevitably given the sequel to come. Nevertheless, en route to the climax, Ross handles the action deftly and without the usual clamour, even pushing the mute button on one exceptional occasion. And Lawrence, tapping into the abundant talent she displayed in Winter's Bone, nicely paints both the teenage warrior and every teen's inner war, the ongoing battle between strength and vulnerability.
But this isn't an actors' film, any more than it's just a kids' film. Instead, The Hunger Games is a modern allegory that illuminates what it appears to imitate, throwing our light/bright culture into darker relief. In any times, but especially these times, that's a rare treat - it takes a sly trickster to be seriously entertaining.
The Hunger Games
- Directed by Gary Ross
- Written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray
- Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
- Classification: PG
- 3.5 stars