I know what some of you are thinking. The Hunger Games made eleventy billion dollars last weekend (OK, $153 million). It’s based on a book written for teens — with kissing! Why are adult critics, with supposedly adult tastes, feeding the hype?
If you have read Suzanne Collins’ novels, all you need to know is that director Gary Ross has made a faithful adaptation — truncated in places, of course, and not as edgy as some might hope, but an effective visualization of an already cinematic book. Thanks to savvy casting and a smallish budget, The Hunger Games does not turn a dystopian coming-of-age story into a video game. It has the slightly grubby, cobbled-together look of a futuristic flick from the ’70s, but that, along with the mod-on-the-cheap production design and outré costumes, is part of its charm.
Now, if all this is Greek to you, here are my five reasons why you shouldn’t dismiss The Hunger Games as a Twilight franchise with more killing:
1. Wacked-out premise. Collins asks American teens to imagine themselves as residents of a third-world-style backwater catering to a decadent metropolis that, from time to time, murders them for its amusement. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), inhabits District 12 of future North America, which resembles Depression-era Appalachia. The “hunger” in the title isn’t metaphorical: Early in the film, she reacts to a hunk of bread as many of us would to a spanking-new iPad. With underplayed details like that, the film does justice to Collins’ dark imaginative exercise — giving teens what they want (action, romance, fantasies of being Super Special), while forcing them to question the lifestyles they take for granted.
2. Plot. While Twilight rotates around romance, and Harry Potter is convoluted, the Hunger Games books have a simple, propulsive setup: Each year, as an exercise of power and propaganda, the ruling Capitol holds the televised Hunger Games, where 24 kids chosen by lottery — two from each subject district — must fight till one is left alive. Katniss volunteers for the games to save her younger sister (Willow Shields), knowing her death is almost certain, since richer districts groom their competitors like gladiators.
3. Satire. While the book stays in Katniss’ perspective, the film enhances the pop-culture parallels with scenes where we learn how the games are manipulated behind the scenes. They’re one part Roman gladiatorial combat and two parts live reality show, complete with a fatuous host (Stanley Tucci), instant replays and exit interviews. Coached by her cynical, alcoholic mentor (Woody Harrelson), Katniss learns that an underdog can prevail by giving the jaded audience something it craves — e.g, a doomed romance. When she starts getting chummier with her fellow contestant, Peeta (skillfully played by Josh Hutcherson), the tenderness is as much a tactic as anything else.
4. Casting. Anyone who saw Winter’s Bone knows Lawrence already owns the role of a stoic backwoods girl providing for her family. Her moments of terror and defiance — when, for instance, Katniss realizes that the beaming TV interviewer fully expects her to die — give this film an emotional anchor.
5. It’s got action, but it’s not an action movie. Ross uses handheld camerawork to emphasize Katniss’ confusion in the games, rather than serving up the slaughter as spectacle. While that impressionism allows the filmmakers to soften their subject — and nail down the PG-13 rating — it keeps the focus where it should be, on the characters.
Is The Hunger Games for teens? Sure. But it’s also the closest to a blockbuster flick about underclass revolution that you’re ever likely to see. Take that as you will.
* Running time: 142 min.
* Rated: PG-13