The first novel in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy is a futuristic fight-to-the-death thriller driven by pure survival instinct, but the creative equivalent of that go-for-broke impulse is absent from director Gary Ross’ “The Hunger Games.” Proficient, involving, ever faithful to its source and centered around Jennifer Lawrence’s impressive star turn, this much-anticipated, nearly 2 1/2-hour event picture should satiate fans, entertain the uninitiated and take an early lead among the year’s top-grossing films. Yet in the face of near-certain commercial success, no one seems to have taken the artistic gambles that might have made this respectable adaptation a remarkable one.
Relentlessly paced, unflagging in its sense of peril and blessed with a spunky protagonist who can hold her own alongside Bella Swan and Lisbeth Salander in the pantheon of pop-lit heroines, Collins’ latest book cycle seemed a logical candidate for adaptation from the get-go. Narrated in a first-person style that favors swift exposition over descriptive detail, the series also offers a filmmaker plenty of leeway not only in visualizing its dystopian world onscreen, but in tackling the real-world parallels implicit in this grim vision of totalitarian rule.
Bookended by scenes set in a high-tech city, the film quickly immerses the viewer in the mud and grime of District 12, the poorest of the dozen civilian sectors that make up the futuristic nation of Panem. The government maintains order through nationally televised bloodsports known as the Hunger Games, in which two “tributes” from each district, a boy and a girl, must participate in an annual winner-kills-all-and-takes-all bloodbath.
Pluckier and more resourceful than most is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), a skilled archer who hunts to provide for herself, her mother (Paula Malcomson) and her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields). When Prim is selected at random to represent District 12 in the games, Katniss bravely volunteers to take her place and winds up paired with baker’s son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with whom she shares a brief, vague history.
Accompanied by some leaden comic relief in the form of a drunken mentor (Woody Harrelson) and a garishly made-up escort (Elizabeth Banks), the two are whisked off to the Capitol, an ivory tower of a city imagined as a fantastical explosion of color by production designer Philip Messina and costume designer Judianna Makovsky, among others. There, all 24 tributes are made over, trained for battle and interviewed by a beaming, blue-haired celebrity host (Stanley Tucci) as a prelude to this lethal mash-up of “Survivor,” “American Idol” and, at one point, “Project Runway.”
The questions raised here, regarding the morality of violence as entertainment and the brutality of pitting children against each other, have been addressed before, and to more potent effect, in films like “Series 7: The Contenders” and the shockingly violent Japanese actioner “Battle Royale.” Yet if the satirical and topical elements aren’t exactly fresh, the script (by Ross, Collins and Billy Ray) does give them a few knowing spins. Particularly shrewd are the behind-the-scenes moments when Panem’s President Snow (a quietly malevolent Donald Sutherland) pressures Seneca (Wes Bentley), the keeper of the games, to maintain control of the situation, a subplot that reps one of the few deviations from the novel and lays the groundwork for “Catching Fire,” the next film in the Lionsgate series.
But once the games begin and the contenders are released into a densely forested arena, rigged with “Truman Show”-style cameras for maximum coverage and trackability, the film clings to Collins’ text as if it were itself a survival guide. Readers may find themselves mentally checking off plot points as Katniss looks for water; flees fires; makes strategic use of a wasps’ nest; tries to suss out whether Peeta loves her, wants to kill her or both; and uses her many years of hunting experience to evade, outwit and inevitably destroy her attackers.
Whatever its earlier shortcomings, the picture really should have spread its wings at this stage, morphing into a spare, stripped-down actioner fueled by sheer adrenaline and nonstop harrowing incident. That intention is evident enough in the darting handheld camerawork and quick cutting style favored here by the filmmakers, including d.p. Tom Stern and editors Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling. Yet while the individual setpieces are well staged, they also feel a bit too neatly scheduled within the story’s framework, and the frequent toggling between the arena and Seneca’s control room only undercuts the momentum.
Lawrence, who auditioned brilliantly for this role with her even rawer turn in “Winter’s Bone,” again projects a heartrending combo of vulnerability, grit and soul while convincingly playing several years her junior. The camera remains so glued to her every expression and gesture that no one else, save perhaps Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ suave professional stylist, is given the opportunity to hold the screen against her.
The film does achieve a strong surge of emotion when Katniss forms an alliance with young tribute Rue (winning newcomer Amandla Stenberg), culminating in a stirring sequence that pauses to acknowledge the sheer, impossible inhumanity of the situation. Yet after this high point, things settle into a more prosaic, anticlimactic rhythm, and the central drama, pivoting on the nature of Katniss’ and Peeta’s relationship, never sparks to life.
What viewers are left with is a watchable enough picture that feels content to realize someone else’s vision rather than claim it as its own. Any real sense of risk has been carefully ironed out: The PG-13 rating that ensures the film’s suitability for its target audience also blunts the impact of the teen-on-teen bloodshed, most of it rendered in quick, oblique glimpses; whether this is the morally responsible decision is open to debate. Weirdest of all: Hunger, the one constant in Katniss’ hard-scrabble life, barely even seems to register.
Ross, a reliable craftsman directing his first film since 2003’s “Seabiscuit,” makes a point of delineating between the haves and have-nots: While the Capitol is an overlit, f/x-heavy wonderland, the bleak, desaturated images of rural-industrial poverty in District 12 could have been influenced by the photographs of Dorothea Lange. Given such wildly disparate parts (one scene suggests “Little House on the Prairie” invaded by Stormtroopers), the look doesn’t entirely cohere, though auds will gladly suspend disbelief. Complementing James Newton Howard’s orchestral score, the unusually lyrical, C&W-steeped soundtrack, boasting contributions from Arcade Fire, Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift, nicely suggests an America mired in an uncertain future.