For a movie with the word “games” in the title and based on a book written for young adults, “The Hunger Games” is startlingly un-frivolous. This is serious business, this matter of a dystopian future America in which every year two dozen teenagers are forced to fight to the death! As campy as the premise is, and notwithstanding how tongue-in-cheek most of the other movies that have used this scenario have been, the big-screen version of Suzanne Collins’ novel takes it seriously.
Which isn’t to say the movie’s not entertaining. In fact, treating the material with gravity rather than levity increases its capacity to thrill us: the higher the stakes feel, the more invested we are in the story. As directed by Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”) and adapted by him, Collins, and Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), “The Hunger Games” is exciting and solid, as intently focused on its goals as its protagonist is on hers. It feels like it was made for grown-ups, even though it probably wasn’t.
The bleak tone is established immediately with somber views of impoverished District 12 and its weary, resigned inhabitants. Among them is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, not far from her Oscar-nominated role in “Winter’s Bone”), a diligent teenager who cares for her widowed mother (Paula Malcolmson) and 12-year-old sister, Prim (Willow Shields), by sneaking out of the district boundaries to hunt small game with a bow and arrow. (Well, “sneaking” might not be the right word. There’s a sign on the fence warning that it’s electrified, and Katniss casually climbs through a gap in it.) Katniss is headstrong but smart enough not to openly question the oppressive government that keeps her district in poverty. Her apparently platonic friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), on the other hand, is angry.
Today is the Reaping, wherein each of the country’s 12 districts chooses a boy and a girl at random to send to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games, wherein 24 participants enter an arena and fight until 23 of them are dead — all televised and packaged as entertainment. The winner’s district gets extra allotments of food and other federal magnanimity for the next year, plus praise from the coldly tyrannical head of state, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Treated like a cross between the Fourth of July and “American Idol,” the Hunger Games are held every year as a reminder of the government’s power over the people, to prevent uprisings (although why anyone would rebel against a country ruled by Donald Sutherland is beyond me).
Katniss ends up as District 12’s female tribute this year, with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son, also chosen in the Reaping. They’re whisked away to the Capitol, a gleaming, futuristic city populated by gaudy rich people, to train with the other tributes before they’re turned against each other. Their “mentor” is Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a drunken stumblebum who is District 12’s only living Hunger Games winner. (I THINK THE GAMES MESSED UP HIS HEAD.) Their chaperone, a Capitol representative, is the vibrantly colored Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), whose creepy enthusiasm at the Reaping ceremony makes that intense scene even more unsettling.
The Games do eventually happen, and they’re lethal. What’s interesting is that they don’t feel like the only reason for the movie to exist. Instead of rushing to get the story to that point, Ross lets the preliminaries play out, to give some weight to Katniss’ life (and, to a lesser extent, Peeta’s). Because of this, and aided by Lawrence’s steely, mature performance, the Games themselves don’t feel like a sensationalistic gimmick. This isn’t a movie about a death match; it’s a movie about Katniss Everdeen, who must participate in a death match.
Ross’ matter-of-fact treatment of the deaths, when they do come, is jarring in the way it nudges the movie’s PG-13 rating without getting expressly gory. (For me, the violence was more graphic than I thought it would be, but not as graphic as it would be in reality.) Part of the story’s point is to condemn the sort of mentality that would see the Hunger Games as entertainment, so it makes a certain thematic sense for the movie not to seek to entertain us with realistic gruesomeness. Let’s be honest, though: the reason the violence isn’t graphic is that the studio didn’t want an R-rated movie. Given those restrictions, Ross does pretty well, though his overuse of shaky, handheld cameras — either for faux grittiness or to obscure some of the gore — is exhausting.
There’s a bit of satire in the TV portions of the Hunger Games, presided over by the smiling host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, his teeth enhanced) and piped into every home, but not a lot. Scrutinizing our reality-show-craving, entertainment-starved society is only part of the point. The larger theme is Katniss asserting her identity and individuality, and inspiring her fellow citizens to do the same (at least eventually; the rebellion is saved for the next installments in the trilogy). Because an action hero needs a love interest, and because young-adult fiction needs romance, Katniss and Peeta make sparks during the Games while Gale broods back in District 12 — but that aspect of the story is kept to a minimum, thankfully, walking the line between pandering to the young female audience and turning away the young male audience.
And that’s good, because the story has general appeal. Collins’ novel felt cinematic to begin with, as if it was always destined to be a movie, and this treatment basically does it justice. It could use more Effie, more of Katniss’ stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), more of game-master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and more Haymitch — always more Haymitch. It could probably use an actor with more presence than Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, too. And it skimps too much on explaining the nature of this society, how things work day-to-day, and how they got that way. But it’s effective anyway, both as a standalone sci-fi action drama and in laying the groundwork for the trilogy. I, for one, welcome our new arrow-wielding overlords.
B (2 hrs., 22 min.; )