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Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games and its two sequels are stunningly well written and morally problematic. They’re set in the future, in which a country — presumably the former United States — is divided into 12 fenced-off districts many miles apart.
Each year, to remind people of its endless power, a totalitarian government holds a lottery, selecting two children, a girl and a boy from each district to participate in a killing ritual — The Hunger Games of the title — that will be televised to the masses, together with opening ceremonies and beauty-pageant-style interviews.
Out of 24 participants, only one child will live. And we hope it will be Katniss Everdeen, from the impoverished mining District 12 — a teen who, when her little sister is picked in the lottery, volunteers to take her place.
Why is it problematic? Kids killing kids is the most wrenching thing we can imagine, and rooting for the deaths of Katniss’ opponents can’t help but implicate us. But the novel is written by a humanist: When a child dies, we breathe a sigh of relief that Katniss has one less adversary, but we never go, “Yes!” — we feel only revulsion for this malicious ritual.
If the movie’s director, Gary Ross, has any qualms about kids slaying kids, he keeps them to himself. The murders on screen are fast and largely pain-free — you can hardly see who’s killing who. So despite the high body count, the rating is PG-13.
Think about it: You make killing vivid and upsetting and get an R. You take the sting out of it, and kids are allowed into the theater. The ratings board has it backward.
The overcrowded preview audience obviously adored The Hunger Games, but I saw one missed opportunity after another. Director Ross is well-known for showbiz satire, pleasant in Pleasantville but ruinous in Seabiscuit — a great novel about the torturous underbelly of horse racing turned into a lame, movie-ish period piece.
He approaches The Hunger Games like a hack. The film is all shaky close-ups, so you rarely have a chance to take in the space, and the editing is so fast you can’t focus. As Katniss’ dissolute coach Haymitch, a former Hunger Games champion, Woody Harrelson has no chance to showcase a comic rhythm — or disgust at what he’s doing. The novel’s most engaging and mercurial character, the costume designer Cinna, is now a blandly nice guy portrayed by the acceptable but dull non-actor Lenny Kravitz.
A highlight of the novel is how Cinna uses his showbiz savvy to make Katniss a star, the queen of the pre-Hunger Games pageant. But in the film, her entrance in a gown that’s literally in flames is so poorly framed that you can’t revel in her glory. Ross throws away what could be a surprising image of child warriors rising out of tubes to face one another in a semicircle, knowing they might loose their lives in seconds. Where is the horror?
The picture gets some things right, like the scenes of Katniss running through the forest, the canopy of trees above her streaking by. And it has a stunningly good Katniss in J-Law. She’s not a muscled Hollywood ingénue or a trained action star — she looks real. And without words, she makes it clear that Katniss’ task is not merely to stay alive but somehow to hold onto her humanity.
A few other actors register in spite of the speed-freak editing. Josh Hutcherson has a strong, sorrowful countenance as Katniss’ fellow District 12 contestant, Peeta. Stanley Tucci in a blue bouffant as a talk-show host, Wes Bentley in a manicured black-fungus beard as the games’ high-tech coordinator, and Donald Sutherland in a white mane as the demonic lion of a president are all you could hope for.
There’s a terrific score by James Newton Howard that captures moods — wistful, mysterious — that the director fails to evoke. The Hunger Games leaves you happy — but not, as with the book, devastated by the senseless carnage. It is, I’m sorry to say, the work of moral cowards.