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If Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games full movie 2012 turns up on middle-school curricula 50 years from now—and as accessible dystopian science fiction with allusions to early-21st-century strife, that isn’t out of the question—the lazy students of the future can be assured that they can watch the movie version and still get better than a passing grade.
But that’s a dubious success: A novel is a novel and a film is a film, and whenever the latter simply sets about illustrating the former, it’s a failure of adaptation, to say nothing of imagination. When the goal is simply to be as faithful as possible to the material—as if a movie were a marriage, and a rights contract the vow—the best result is a skillful abridgment, one that hits all the important marks without losing anything egregious. And as abridgments go, they don’t get much more skillful than this one.
That such a safe adaptation could come of The Hunger Games speaks more to the trilogy’s commercial ascent than the book’s actual content, which is audacious and savvy in its dark calculations. In terms of film, The Hunger Games suggests Paul Verhoeven in Robocop/Starship Troopers mode, an R-rated bloodbath where the dark spectacle of kids murdering each other on TV is bread-and-circuses for the age of reality TV show, enforced by a totalitarian regime to hold the masses at bay. It’s “The Most Dangerous Game” by way of The Running Man and Battle Royale, with touches of Survivor and the mass-scale orchestration of The Truman Show. Whereas Collins does add in the blend a love triangle, a coming-of-age tale, and other YA-friendly elements, they serve as a Trojan horse to smuggle readers into a hopeless world where love becomes a stratagem and growing up is a matter of basic survival.
Showcasing a sturdy professionalism throughout that stops just lack of artistry, director Gary Ross, who co-wrote the script with Collins and Billy Ray, does his strongest work in the early sequences, which set up the stakes with chilling efficiency. The opening crawl (and a stirring propaganda film) informs us that The Hunger Games are an annual event in Panem, a North American country divided into 12 distinctive districts, each in service to the Capitol, a wealthy metropolis that owes its citizens comforts to an oppressive dictatorship.
For the 75 years since a district rebellion was put down, The Games have been served as an assertion of the Capital’s power, a winner-take-all contest that sprouts heroism and sacrifice—competitors are called “tributes”— while pitting the districts against one another. At “The Reaping,” a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen randomly from each district—with chances determined by age and the number of rations they accept throughout the year—and sprung into a controlled arena, where they’re forced to kill one another until only one survives.
In District 12, a dirt-poor coal-mining community that seems like a Dorothea Lange photograph, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) quietly rebels against the system by hunting game in a restricted area with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, Thor’s brother) and trading it on the black market. Katniss prepares her meek younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) for her first Reaping, but the odds of a single entry being selected among teenagers with many entries apiece are long.
In The Hunger Games movie’s most captivating scene, those long odds turn against Prim in a shock that Ross renders in agonizing silence, broken only by Katniss screaming that she’ll volunteer in her little sister’s place. She’s accompanied, on the boys’ side, by Peeta (played by Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son whose earnestness compensates a gift for strategy that Katniss lacks. Together, with the help of the drunkard Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the only District 12 citizen ever to win The Hunger Games movie, they challenge tributes that vary from sadistic volunteers to handy kids like the pint-sized Rue (Amandla Stenberg) to the genuinely helpless and soon-to-be-dead.
The cast of characters doesn’t stop there. Katniss also owns a team of stylists, led by Cinna (played by Lenny Kravitz), that cover up for her reticent personality with stunning makeup and outfits, and she’s trailed by the relentlessly perky Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a kind of kabuki cheerleader for The Games and District 12. Then there are the enforcers of the Capital itself, ruled by the diabolical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and including a group of TV commentators (Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones), chief game-maker Seneca (Wes Bentley), and the Peacekeepers in white stormtrooper get-ups.
And on and on and on. Ross and his screenwriters do well with the unenviable task of setting the table for the series, but with so many characters and subplots to service, they have to ration as stingily as the Capital. The Reaping is one of the few scenes that’s given time to breathe a little, and it makes all the difference—the hushed crowd, neither roused by propaganda nor open in resistance, says everything about the terror and simmering resentment that evokes in the districts. Once Katniss volunteers, the film leaps from one plot point to another without emphasizing any to decent effect. Ross and company deliver on the franchise more effectively than, say, the first Harry Potter movie, but there’s little evidence that they had any other agenda in mind.
The key strength of Collins’ novel is Katniss herself, a model of steel-spined resourcefulness and power whose internal monologue roils with daft naivety and self-doubt, especially when it comes to reading her supposed allies. Absent that monologue, Ross’ movie mostly has the novel’s action, and that’s enough for a rousing two hours through the surreality of the Capital—which feels like Dubai crosses Nuremberg—and the excitement of the Games themselves, which are sanitized by the PG-13 rating, but nevertheless suspenseful and dread-soaked. And beyond the mayhem are the periodic reminders that the Games are as rigged as any reality show; as with a casino, it’s important that the house always wins, even if that means making up the rules as it goes along.
The Hunger Games full movie has its share of standalone payoffs, though some are too sketchily developed to have much of an impact, like Katniss’ motherly connection to Rue. Nevertheless, it’s the first act in a three-act tale, and characters who appear thin now may resonate more down the line. With all the dirty work out of the way, perhaps the sequels will come closer to channeling the revolutionary fervor of Collins’ books, and perhaps given the current focus on income inequality, find a populist edge in the process. Whether The Hunger Games films will take on a life of their own is another matter: As of the first installment, it’s stenography in light.