Successfully adapting a book about two dozen teenagers forced to fight to the death into a PG-13 movie is, perhaps, a dubious achievement: can it really be accomplished without sanitizing material that has no business being sanitized? I still have my doubts. Director Gary Ross conjures up stomach-churning tension as the deadly Games approach, but some of that tension goes slack once the event arrives because the suddenly hyperactive camera seems virtually unable to confront the violence at the heart of the story—not just the violent deaths of children but the fact that other children are doing the killing.
That criticism feels a bit bloodthirsty, but one of author Suzanne Collins’s greatest accomplishments in her Hunger Games trilogy is creating true horror, not merely an entertainingly dark fantasy world but rather an ever deepening, unsettling, provocative dystopia. I can’t help but feel that the transition from page to screen has defanged her vision to some extent.
That said, despite my suspicion that something here has fallen quite short of its mark, I enjoyed the Hunger Games movie a great deal. How could I not? It’s a sleekly made film with a stunningly deep cast and an admirably adept, spare screenplay. It allows the actors’ performances and the little details of the production to convey subtext, and even better, it trusts the audience to pick up on those nuances. It’s a smart, sharp thriller featuring an already iconic heroine—and, yes, a weirdly antiseptic approach to the darkest of her trials. You can’t have everything, I guess.
For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games is the based on the first book in Suzanne Collins’s YA trilogy about a teenage girl in a post-apocalyptic North America. The Capitol of Panem holds absolute power over twelve once-rebellious districts. Each year, each district must send as tribute two teenagers who are forced to fight to the death in the Hunger Games—to entertain the people of the Capitol and to remind the people of the subjugated districts just how powerless they are. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), from the impoverished District 12, ends up as one of the tributes. As an experienced poacher, she’s in a better position than most entering the Games, but to survive, she has to be able to play to the audience—fan favorites have many advantages—and that’s not something that comes easily to her at all. Her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), however, is as personable as she is prickly, and his televised confession that he has a crush on Katniss, coupled with the attention-getting couture of the shrewd stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), makes her an object of fascination to the people of the Capitol. Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and their handler, Effie (Elizabeth Banks), are thrilled with the response, as is the Head Gamemaker, Seneca (Wes Bentley), who just wants to put on a good show. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) warns Seneca that entertainment is not the ultimate purpose of the Hunger Games—it’s not in the Capitol’s best interest to cultivate underdogs—but once she has the eyes of Panem on her, the resolute, valiant Katniss is more powerful than she or even Snow could anticipate.
Key to the movie’s success (however qualified that success might be) is the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence has a brilliant ability to play strong and weak, brave and frightened, smart and dumbfounded all at the same time. That’s what made Winter’s Ree such a compelling protagonist, and that’s what Lawrence brings to Katniss too. Without the benefit of the book’s first-person view into Katniss’s head, Lawrence nonetheless manages to convey the girl’s usually unspoken desperation and confusion and calculation—along with the more dynamic depiction of her prowess with a bow. She’s exactly the heartbreaking, infuriating, inspiring character I imagined when I read the books.
And Ross and the screenwriters (including Collins, adapting her own book) do an admirable job of backing Lawrence up. The movie’s first set piece, the Reaping, in which the tributes are chosen by lottery, is probably the best sequence in the movie. Countless well-chosen details deftly sketch in background—about Katniss’s strained family life, the fascistic nature of the Capitol, the vast inequalities in Panem—and illustrate just how crushing the rituals of the Hunger Games are. The movie takes time to breathe at the Reaping—not that we can ourselves—and the result is haunting.
Later, that kind of taut lingering is obliterated in the frenetic editing of the Games. I know such quick-cutting, disorienting camerawork is reasonably common these days, but here it reeks of trying to distract from the actual subject matter. The first entrance of the tributes into the arena, for example, is often described as a bloodbath (it’s common for a quarter or more of the players to be slaughtered in the first few minutes of the Games), but the movie throws up a smokescreen of portentous music and feverish edits. I was willing to chalk that up to a manifestation of Katniss’s confused, panicky perspective, but then the movie cuts to shots of the dead tributes, so close up and lacking in context that the subjects might as well be sleeping. It all feels too clean.
Of course I understand why the filmmakers are doing things this way: they have to make a PG-13 movie out of what is manifestly not PG-13 material. Obfuscation is probably the only way to manage it. And to be fair, they represent other elements of the books quite well. Hutcherson captures Peeta’s paradoxically open-eyed innocence beautifully, and the scenes between him and Lawrence hold real poignance. There isn’t much time to develop the relationship between Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a small, agile tribute who reminds Katniss of her sister, but Stenberg conveys such sweetness that it’s easy to care about the girl—and to feel Katniss’s pain when the inevitable happens.
And perhaps more interesting (from an adaptation standpoint), the movie also does a good job creating new scenes—scenes that the books, tied to Katniss’s first-person perspective, never could. For example, the glimpses of Haymitch’s politicking on behalf of his tributes are fascinating, and we get an early, ominous sense of who President Snow is in the scenes between him and Seneca. Sutherland brings the perfect gentlemanly menace to the role, and the filled-in character arc provided for Seneca is deliciously poetic.
But there’s still something missing from the screen. It’s not gore—that’s not what I’m asking for—but rather a sense of mortal danger. The arena never truly feels like someplace where nearly two dozen people will die violently at one another’s hands. And without that visceral sense of the stakes—and the oppressive, omnipresent fear that goes along with it—everything is undercut. A bloodless blood sport doesn’t so thoroughly indict those who celebrate it, nor does it respect those forced to participate in it. The Hunger Games movie has a heart, which matters most, surely, but without enough blood pumping through that heart, it’s not quite the film it should be.