More powerful than fear in subduing a society, says President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in this overstuffed adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins's trilogy, is hope. Is that a dig at our own chief executive? Actually, mindless spectacle works better at inducing apathy, as ancient Rome, often alluded to in both book and movie, demonstrated with its "panem et circenses." Not that this film is mindless; on the contrary, director/co-screenwriter Gary Ross's stabs at topical commentary tend to stifle what might have been a more rousing entertainment.
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Speaking of entertainment, why is it that nobody in The Hunger Games seems to be enjoying the Hunger Games? The games are the annual event established after the failure of a revolt against a despotic, futuristic USA. To punish the defeated rebel districts, the tyrannical "Capital" forces them to choose a girl and boy as "Tributes" who will fight to the death before ubiquitous TV cameras in a free-for-all battle from which only one will emerge alive. Kind of like Battle Royale done as The Truman Show.
Sounds like fun, but the only people who get a kick out of it are the Capitol's hard-partying one-per centers, elitist flibbertigibbets who look like refugees from the Big Apple Circus. Meanwhile, those in the exploited districts watch under armed guard in public squares, their resentment seething.
It's no Dancing with the Stars. Nonetheless, the key to winning is showmanship as much as skill. The Tributes' human interest stories could move "sponsors" to assist with gifts of medicine and soup sent in by parachute — which seems ineffective from a commercial standpoint, since it doesn't even involve product placement. But that's the angle pursued by Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), mentor for Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the two contestants from the Appalachia-like District 12. If he can make these two seem like doomed lovers, it would make for great TV and help ensure that the sponsors send them some love.
REVOLUTIONARY In one of the performances of the year, Jennifer Lawrence (here with Woody Harrelson) makes up for whatever grace the filmmaking lacks.
As it happens, Peeta apparently does have a crush on Katniss. She, on the other hand, cares only about her family: she had volunteered as Tribute to take the place of her younger sister and needs to win so she can return home and provide for her and their mother. Even so, Katniss goes along with the game plan, playing up the romance for the camera. But in one of the film's more subtle critiques of the media, the contrived image blurs into reality.
Like the book, the film is slow to get going, stodgy in setting up the premise. And when it does take off, it strays from Katniss's intense, limited point of view, which is so effective in the book. A lot is seen through her eyes, but too often Ross cuts to the men behind the curtain manipulating the contest. Most distracting is the host, Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci, who, depending on his outfit, resembles Liberace, the Joker, or Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula), though his sidebars provide useful exposition. Finally, maybe to keep its PG-13 rating (unlike Bully, a real-life look at teen-on-teen cruelty), the film resorts to choppy montages in almost all the action scenes.