Adapted from the best-selling book by Suzanne Collins (the first in a trilogy of diminishing returns), The Hunger Games has barely an original thought in its silly head. Its similarities to Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale are woefully obvious and well-documented, and I'd have let the matter slip had I not realised Collins' previous literary success (The Underland Chronicles) also has similarities to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. I guess she's one of those authors who'd rather write her own take on something cool, instead of coming up with unique ideas of her own. Collins also appears to have enjoyed reading The Running Man, The Truman Show, and Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, because they're all interwoven into her futuristic tale of a televised blood sport...
For sketchy reasons, a post-apocalyptic dystopian nation called Panem maintains public order by having the privileged classes (garish Dr Seuss versions of bewigged 18th-century aristocrats) watch annual "Hunger Games" on television; a lethal tournament where 12 boys and 12 girls from impoverished districts are randomly chosen as "tributes", trained to fight, and sent to kill each other in a forest full of weapons and hidden cameras. Two of the latest initiates for the Games are skilled archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers to replace her little sister, and baker's son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), whose special skill is... well, he can lob heavy items.
For the first forty-minutes, The Hunger Games was at least a bizarre curio to puzzle over. It never makes a lick of sense why society found peace through the entertaining genocide of adolescents, why the many Districts accept everything without too much fuss, why parents don't seem to care if their children are chosen to fight to the death, or why the kids never protest when whisked away by train to the extravagant Capital and forced to participate in pre-Games pageantry and training.
The wealthy characters, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), don't come across as frightening people you daren't mess with, they feel like gaudy jokes, so I spent the majority of the movie convinced a simple sit-down protest would end the nonsense. What would happen if the tributes refused to cooperate en masse? The "prize" is the fact the last person standing will escape the shantytowns, but is that even a worthwhile prize if your family can't come with you? (Or can they? It really wasn't clear.) Even worse, once The Hunger Games' deadly game of survival begins, there's little sense of tragedy or emotional turmoil when teenagers are forced into a kill-or-be-killed nightmare. They simply go about this business matter-of-factly; probably because the story has to appeal to a far younger demographic than its concept would have you reasonably expect. By the end, 22 children have been murdered (plot spoiler for maths whizzes), but there wasn't a single character whose death struck a chord. I was actually surprised to realise an abhorrent slaughter had happened, as the majority of the kills occurred off-screen. Compare and contrast to the aforementioned Battle Royale, which was smothered with a queasy feeling about innocent kids forced to kill by a sick adult society.
Lawrence makes for a half-decent screen heroine (certainly preferable to Emma Watson and Kristen Stewart), although she has zero chemistry with screen lover Josh Hutcherson, which undermines much of the film. Efficiently but insipidly directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), The Hunger Games probably works better for fans of the book trilogy—who can, rather like Harry Potterheads, fill in many of the blanks themselves. (I mean, why is it even called the Hunger Games? The poor are seen eating reasonable meals and none of the Game-playing teenagers looked anywhere close to being emaciated.)
For a non-fan like myself, hoping to see an old idea reinterpreted for a new generation, it all felt like a missed opportunity. The gruesome concept was smoothed over to rob it of any impact, and the romance at the core of the story never worked. It's another of those dumb-but-popular movies where good actors like Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson and Toby Jones are paraded through with dollar signs in their eyes. "You want me to wear a ridiculous purple wig as a futuristic Jay Leno, while a young girl spins around with the hem of her dress on fire? And this will definitely make my daughters and nieces like me?"
There are two more Hunger Games in the offing, naturally. Maybe three if they split the last one in two, which is fast becoming tradition with film adaptations of Young-adult fiction. I think I've had enough of the slim pickings here.
directed by Gary Ross / written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins & Billy Ray (based on the novel by Suzanne Collins) / starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci & Donald Sutherland / Lionsgate / 142 mins.