Anyone who has read the 2008 bestseller on which it's based will encounter no surprises in The Hunger Games. Once again we're in the post-apocalyptic country of Panem—formerly North America before an unspecified disaster wiped out that civilization some years earlier. Panem is divided into 12 heavily oppressed Districts ruled with a steel fist by the merciless President Snow (Donald Sutherland, little-seen) in the faraway Capitol. There was once a thirteenth District, but it grew rebellious and was destroyed. Cowed by that intimidating example, the remaining populace lives in conditions of soul-draining deprivation, meekly acquiescent. But the Capitol's vengeance is ongoing: It has instituted an annual event called the Hunger Games, for which "Tributes"—one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18—are selected from each District to gather in an arena and engage in armed combat until all but one have been killed.
If fans of the novel will already know all of this (and fans of the Japanese film Battle Royale will recognize familiar ground), the same might have been said of such earlier book-to-screen adaptations as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films. But in those cases, the filmmakers freshened the well-known tales with groundbreakingly imaginative digital effects, and surrounded the little-known young leads with estimable veterans (Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Christopher Lee). In this movie, CGI is comparatively minimal, and some of the effects—an onslaught of fireballs, the inevitable rampaging beasties—are surprisingly cheesy; and while the picture is vitally enlivened by Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson in subsidiary roles, the focus is on a larger group of young actors who in some cases could be interchangeable.
It was thus a wise choice by director Gary Ross to cast Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role of Katniss Everdeen, the fearless warrior girl, who's in virtually every scene. As she has demonstrated in such previous films as Winter's Bone and Like Crazy, Lawrence is an actor of subtle command, a gray-eyed beauty who can project star presence simply by being present. The Hunger Games would have been a lusterless production without her.
Katniss lives in District 12, in what was once Appalachia, with her widowed mother (Paula Malcomson) and little sister, Prim (Willow Shields). It's a place of picturesque misery—grimy men trudging off to the coal mines, hard-bitten women suffering in their dismal shifts and headscarves—that heavily suggests the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Katniss supplements her family's meager diet by slipping through the District's imprisoning fence to hunt game with her bow and arrows in the company of a local boy named Gale (Liam Hemsworth). When her sister Prim is selected by lottery for the latest Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place, and is transported with another village boy, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), to the Capitol to be coached for battle by an assigned mentor named Haymitch (Harrelson), a scrubby drunkard with little in the way of encouragement to offer. ("Embrace the probability of your imminent death," he tells them.)
The Capitol, as presented here, is a city of spectacular (or maybe just silly, you may think) decadence, its inhabitants wallowing in luxury and disporting themselves in outlandish clothing and makeup, both of which lean heavily toward pastels. On hand to attend to Katniss are a twittery contest factotum named Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and a sympathetic wardrobe specialist (Lenny Kravitz) whose job is to make Katniss and Peeta camera-ready. Because the Games are actually part of a never-ending reality-TV show hosted by the blindingly smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Tucci, having a ball in glittery suits and abundantly ruffled shirts, with blue hair pulled back into an imposing horsetail).
This year's arena turns out to be an expanse of woodlands and fields. The bloodshed begins the minute the 24 combatants are turned loose to battle over a cache of weapons and proceeds over succeeding days as they stalk one another through the countryside. Katniss is wary of Peeta—who we soon learn has long adored her—but she does form a brief alliance with a crafty little girl named Rue (Amandla Stenberg). And after finally laying hands on a bow and a quiver of arrows, she becomes determined to win this thing.
The story has obvious political overtones. It demonstrates the danger of unbounded government power, and conveys the inhuman horrors of a full-blown police state in its depiction of the slaughter of children (although in a way that's very tightly edited, so as not to endanger a PG-13 rating). There may be more running about in the woods than non-initiates will want to sit through for nearly two and a half hours; and I thought the bland Hutcherson should have been switched into the role of Gale, the boy back home, so that the more substantial Hemsworth could have taken his place and worked up some missing chemistry with Lawrence. Not that she needs much in the way of assistance.
The Hunger Games is an honorable beginning for a franchise (which is surely what it will become—author Suzanne Collins, who also worked on the script, has continued and concluded the story in two subsequent books). One hopes that the digital effects will be muscled up for the next outing, and that more colorful actors along the lines of Tucci and Harrelson will be brought onboard. But this is Jennifer Lawrence's show—she's an action girl that anyone might look forward to seeing back in action.