Dan Lybarger on The Hunger GamesMarch 23, 2012
The Hunger Games
Cast:Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland
Rating:PG-13, for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens
Running time: 142 minutes
By Dan Lybarger
The title contest in Suzanne Collins’ popular The Hunger Games books for teens is a version of Survivor where the adolescent contestants have far more pressing concerns than being voted off the island. In a dystopian America slowly healing from a long war, the title contest features 24 boys and girls (a male and female from each of 12 districts) conniving and clawing not to win $1 million or please Donald Trump. The grand prize in this competition is to be the only person to emerge from a hostile forest alive.
If 23 other young men and women don’t kill a contestant first, disease, starvation and a wilderness made even more dangerous through genetic engineering and digital enhancements might finish the job.
The teens who have been selected from each district are euphemistically called “tributes.” All but one were chosen by a drawing and usually come from economically ravaged areas.
One competitor, however, is unique.
Seventeen year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone and X-Men: First Class) has actually volunteered in order to save her frail 12-year-old sister from certain death by the ultimate mean girls and boys. Because Katniss can hunt and take care of herself in the woods, her odds are better than those of her male counterpart Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). He’s strong as an ox but almost as agile. He also lacks Katniss’ courage and resolve. After all, he didn’t volunteer.
In the Capital, Katniss and Peeta see a world filled with privileged people who seem downright excited to watch the two of them and the other 22 put their lives on the line as if it were some type of video game. These over-privileged folks seem even less sympathetic because they dress in gaudy outfits and have hairstyles and beards that would be more at home on cartoon characters. That said, Sherwood native Wes Bentley looks kind of cool with his oddly curled facial hair.
Katniss and Peeta also encounter a caring makeup artist (Lenny Kravitz) and a cynical former winner named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose alcoholism belies his ability to help players avoid an early game over.
The setup for The Hunger Games isn’t all that new, but Collins, who shares screenwriting credit with Billy Ray (Breach) and director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) imbues this reworking of the creepy Japanese black comedy Battle Royale, The Running Man and The Truman Show with enough outrage to keep it from seeming too derivative. For the most part, Ross handles the tricky feats of keeping a 142-minute movie rolling with tension and of making the violence and the horror seem convincing without bludgeoning the viewers’ faces with carnage. The mayhem comes in quick flashes, just enough to let viewers know that someone has died needlessly because of this sick gladiatorial contest.
Terrific casting doesn’t hurt either. Lawrence is essentially playing the same role she did in Winter’s Bone, but that’s not a bad thing because it’s still refreshing to see her play a strong, smart female lead. She also has a quiet, commanding presence that makes her larger than life role seem strangely real. Stanley Tucci is a scream as the flamboyant host of the Games. He really doesn’t need that blue hair to steal the show. Elizabeth Banks is oddly mesmerizing as the smarmy handler who collects tributes from District 12. Her squeaky voice and clown-like makeup seem even more terrifying than the more sizable kids in the competition.
If the setup behind The Hunger Games upsets you, that’s a good thing. Katniss, who has compassion that equals her bravery, isn’t a sympathetic character merely because she has great aim with a bow. It’s an easy bet that Collins thinks it wrong to treat the misfortunes of others as entertainment. There are more than enough real world competitions that do that already.