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Bread and Circuses

by Ross Douthat

A review of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, the expensive adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s young-adult dystopia, has been so cleverly hyped, so successfully marketed, so effectively promoted in all the highways and byways of social media, that it was inevitable that critics would look for things to dislike about it. I’ve noticed more than a few reviewers damning the adaptation with faint praise, throwing out words like “slick” and “dutiful” and “watchable” that suggest a merely competent page-to-screen transition.

Do not listen to them. The Hunger Games is the blockbuster of the year, as grand and gripping and moving as any recent movie of its size and scope, and a film that does its source material proud. It marks a career high for Gary Ross, a journeyman filmmaker who co-wrote Big and hasn’t done anything particularly impressive since, and an official coming out for Jennifer Lawrence, whose turn as Katniss Everdeen, the female champion of District 12, represents the most pitch-perfect casting of a high-profile role since Ralph Fiennes signed on the dotted line to play Lord Voldemort.

District 12, as every Collins reader knows, is one of the outlying fiefdoms of Panem, a continent-spanning dictatorship sprung from the post-apocalyptic ashes of the United States. Three-quarters of a century before the book and movie open, Panem’s subject territories rebelled unsuccessfully against their overlords, and, ever since, the Capitol has claimed one young man and one young woman from every restive district as an annual “tribute,” to be feted, trained, and finally placed in an arena to fight one another to the death.

Over the intervening generations, the games have evolved into a kind of pop-cultural spectacle for the Capitol’s decadent inhabitants — part Olympics, part Super Bowl, part reality TV. In the provinces, meanwhile, they’re regarded with exactly the fear and loathing you’d expect — and nowhere more so than in Katniss’s home district, a coal-mining community that resembles the Ozark setting of Lawrence’s breakthrough film, 2010’s Winter’s Bone.

In this movie, as in that one, she plays a young woman forced to grow up early: Her father is dead in a mining accident, her mother sinks easily into depressive fogs, and only her woodland hunting — in which she’s usually joined by her handsome neighbor Gale (Liam Hemsworth) — keeps her twelve-year-old sister clothed and fed. But then that same sister’s name is plucked from the pile at the annual Reaping, and Katniss volunteers to enter the Hunger Games in her stead. Along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a gentle baker’s son who’s nursed a secret crush on her for years, she’s whisked away to the Capitol, where the tributes enjoy a week as celebrities before they’re dropped into a wooded landscape that only one of them will leave alive.

In the book, all of this is narrated exclusively from Katniss’s point of view, but the film takes various opportunities to widen the canvas, giving us more time with the denizens of the Capitol, particularly Panem’s suavely sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the head gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), who manipulates the proceedings from inside a NASA-like control room, ordering up forest fires and beast attacks whenever the excitement starts to flag.

The Capitol’s aesthetic is perfect — mid-century modern meets Louis XIV’s Versailles, with perfumed dandies circulating in front of telescreens that report the latest kills. So is the adult casting: Along with Sutherland and Bentley, we get Elizabeth Banks as the empty-headed chaperone Effie Trinket; Woody Harrelson as the grizzled, sozzled Haymitch Abernathy, District 12’s lone winner and thus the mentor to year upon year of doomed tributes (which helps explain why he’s a drunk); and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the television host charged with making the frightened teenagers seem brave and interesting and sexy to a prime-time audience. Tucci is particularly excellent: In a plot that’s ultimately more mythic than political (Collins has specifically cited the Theseus story as an inspiration for her books), he plays Flickerman as the ultimate wicked fairy, all shark’s teeth and crocodile tears.

But it’s Lawrence who ultimately makes the movie work: Naturalistic, determined, withdrawn, and not necessarily likable, she nails the qualities that make Katniss such a distinctive young-adult heroine. As Peeta, the victim-hero of the saga, Hutcherson is competent enough, if not quite up to Lawrence’s standard. Only with Gale, the other corner of the love triangle, did the casting director fail the film: Hemsworth hits his marks, but he looks more like a gym-sculpted matinee idol than a plausible Appalachian hunter.

About the Games themselves and their consequences — which unspool across two more books, and thus at least two more adaptations — I will say little, except to praise the relatively restrained, PG-13 way in which the film portrays the teen-on-teen violence. A number of critics have complained that the movie isn’t bloody enough, and that its death scenes lack the horrifying impact of the book’s more visceral descriptions. This reaction strikes me as a hint of our own form of Capitol-style decadence: If you need Tarantino-esque levels of gore to find the sight of teenagers killing teenagers upsetting, then maybe the problem lies with your own desensitization to violence rather than the filmmakers’ artistic choices.

The Hunger Games will inevitably be compared to the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, but Ross’s movie is better than any of those films. Even the later Potter installments, for all their intermittent strengths, always felt more like accompaniments to the source material than complete adaptations. Whereas The Hunger Games comes closer to the standard set by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: It’s faithful to its literary source, but it stands as a complete and riveting work in its own right as well.

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