Twenty-four teens are picked to live in a dome and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start killing each other with swords in The Hunger Games, the movie based on the first book of the crazy popular trilogy.
I’m not saying that a to-the-death competition is the natural progression of the world created by The Real World, but you can only have so many shows about college students hooking up in hot tubs before you start to look for a new concept.
In Panem, the fascist-seeming nation that rose from some catastrophe in North America, the hot reality show is the broadcast of the Hunger Games. This annual event takes two teens, a boy and a girl, from each of the 12 districts of this dystopian empire and puts them in an arena wherein they must fight each other to the death. The last survivor will be crowned the winner and receive a life time of good eats — hunger and poverty being the way of life in some of the districts.
Particularly in District 12 — formerly Appalachia — from whence comes Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). To feed her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) and her mentally broken mother (Paula Malcomson), Katniss does some illegal hunting in the woods near her town, bagging birds and small animals with a bow and arrow. Though her family is poor and hungry, she is holding it together until this year’s Reaping (the event at which the “tributes,” i.e. the Hunger Games fodder, are picked). Primrose, now 12, is for the first time eligible to have her name drawn. Though other teens have their names in the drawing more times (because they’re older and because extra chances to “win” can get you extra food rations), Primrose is this year’s unlucky girl. Katniss, horrified that her sister has been chosen, quickly volunteers to take her place. She leaves not expecting to come back; don’t let my mother and sister starve, she tells her friend and fellow hunter Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
Also headed to the Capitol (the ruling city where the Hunger Games are fought) from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a boy Katniss sort of knows (his family runs a bakery and once he spotted a hungry Katniss a burned loaf). In the days leading up to the games, they are prepared by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a long-past winner from District 12, and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Haymitch, a drunken cynic, tries to help them with strategy and Cinna focuses on image. In addition to benefiting competitors with physical strength and skill, the Games reward likeable competitors with good backstories. Sponsors — people watching the games and rooting for a specific competitor — can send in food and medicine to their favorites, sometimes making the difference between life and death. Katniss’ hunting skills give her the survival edge, but Peeta seems to have a sense of how to play the PR game.
The Games themselves take place in an arena created by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the director of this bloody event. He designs a landscape (one year it was a burned-out city; this year it’s a forest) in which the teens live and fight for the days it takes their number to be winnowed down. Overseeing the competition are color commentators, like talk show host Caesar Flickman, and Panem’s leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). For Snow, the Games are all about keeping the districts in line and too cowed to think about rebellion.
It was a decades-earlier rebellion that started the Hunger Games. The system of taking children from the districts was a punishment/demonstration of power by the Capitol. This history is touched on just enough so that you get the gist of what’s happening — which is to say, you don’t need to have read the book to get the movie. The story and characters work just fine even if you are new to this world. I came in having read the first third, maybe, of The Hunger Games and having skimmed the final pages. For whatever reason, the book didn’t grab me, but the movie held me for all of its nearly two-and-a-half-hour run time. I credit much of that to Jennifer Lawrence. Though she played Mystique in last summer’s X-Men: First Class, when I think of her I still think first of her portrayal of Ree in Winter’s Bone, the 2010 movie for which she received an Oscar nomination. That role isn’t so different from this one — a teenager living in rural poverty looks after younger siblings and an ill mother and braves violence to prevent the destruction of her family. Lawrence conveys toughness while still seeming human and vulnerable, and she can play a character with the weight of the world on her shoulders while still having a sense of humor. She can make you forget the young-adult fantasy novel origins of this movie and just enjoy the story, which skillfully blends action and drama. So, you grown-up serious-film lover, get over your squeamishness and, when the film hits cable some months from now, watch it.
Not that I recommend waiting. For those who can look past the YA label and the Harry Potter-size hype for this film, The Hunger Games is a movie worth seeing now, in the theater — yes, even despite the running time (the story is energetic enough that it doesn’t feel like the equivalent of a car ride to Augusta, Maine). And that probably includes the teens and older tweens who have read the books — though I wouldn’t recommend taking younger children (12-year-olds are part of the kill-or-be-killed action, so this probably isn’t the movie for that 9-year-old who is curious about the sixth grade). For those with strong enough stomachs, The Hunger Games is a smartly crafted, well-paced movie kicked up a notch in quality thanks to the solid performance of its female lead. B+ —Amy Diaz
Rated PG-13 for intense thematic violent material and disturbing images — all involving teens. Directed by Gary Ross with a screenplay by Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray (from the novel by Collins), The Hunger Games is two hours and 22 minutes long and is distributed by Lionsgate.