For some haggard parents, the idea of 24 teenagers murdering each other in an arena might sound like a good start. For others, whose innate sense of outrage hasn’t been exhausted by years of denying ridiculous offspring requests, this film’s premise probably sounds more morally repugnant than entertaining. It’s set in a future where a despotic government called Panem demands the annual tribute of two kids from its districts for deadly televise-able combat. Such revulsion is shared in Suzanne Collins’s brilliant novel, which clearly indicts government that fosters economic injustice with media controls. Such a problem might already exist, it says. After all, look at you enlightened folk enjoying the carnage.
Unfortunately, the movie version is a somewhat less complex moral mirror, though it makes for compelling cinema, and it certainly makes Collins’s fictional future come alive. Director Gary Ross, Goleta’s great auteur, builds his future world up from the ground with images of our heroes venturing outside their mud-bound township, suddenly overshadowed by a massive craft. They then tensely move back to civilization, where the “tributes” are chosen in herky-jerky two-second cuts, establishing the paranoia. This contrasts sharply with the game, which Ross films lyrically, accentuating loss over horror. Best of all is the casting, and particularly Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, the same type of character she played in Winter’s Bone, emerging tough and touchingly vulnerable.
But what really hovers over this Hunger Games is its weird avoidance of the book’s main theme. Maybe ostensibly about killing, the novel is obsessed with food: Everybody’s always starving or feasting. If you only see this movie, you’ll never understand the title. This deep, constant hunger underlines the book’s deeper critique of colonial subjugation: how everybody eventually is corrupted by luxury. Even Katniss changes when she’s inside the glitzy Capitol’s media. Ross understands this, but doesn’t know how to show the pain vividly. Perhaps he needed to make this movie R. So, ironically, Ross falls hardest for the corruptions of media — his pursuit of selling more tickets makes him pull his punches and soften the blows, making games in which children kill children seem downright enjoyable.