At its best, this successful, though not overwhelming, film adaptation of The Hunger Games lampoons the tawdry neon shades, effusive razzle dazzle, and spectacles of debasement and triumph in contemporary American entertainment. Director Gary Ross does a good job of parroting the same bellicose, tacky bluster of American entertainment that Stephen Colbert so skillfully sends up.
Jennifer Lawrence is the battle-ready Katniss Everdeen, a skilled hunter and resident of the impoverished Appalachian-esque District 12 in the postwar country of Panem. She is a child of nature introduced to the audience in her element: the woods. When the annual Hunger Games competition comes around, she volunteers herself in place of her fragile young sister as a competitor in the winner-takes-all event. Referencing the Greek myth of the Minotaur, with its young Athenian tributes battling to the death, the Hunger Games competition takes children from the impoverished districts that compose this grim future world and preps them to battle to the death, all for the delight and entertainment of the well-heeled 1-percenter citizens of the Capitol, led by President Snow (a quietly menacing Donald Sutherland). The aesthetics of social decay in Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games are their own cornucopia of references, from the dandified men in brightly colored powdered wigs reminiscent of pre-Revolutionary France to the smarmy affectations of TV personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). The gawdy Capitol and its coddled, outrageously outfitted citizenry is contrasted with the Depression-era dust bowl vibe of District 12. The real action naturally takes place once the tributes enter the wild, enveloping woods outside the Capitol, where the games go down. But this PG-13 version has been largely purged of the gruesome violence that made the novel such a sensation with thrill-kill librarians and the preteen set. Katniss has also been partially cleansed of her more violent tendencies. You get the feeling the filmmakers felt a heroine who kills to save herself wasn’t palatable to their adult sensibilities, though preteens and teenagers could undoubtedly handle that content, even if the MPAA could not. Author Suzanne Collins was clearly able to imagine a complex female character both nurturing and violent, but the filmmakers seem less able to stomach that mix.