Even if you know nothing of Panem, mockingjays and Katniss Everdeen (silly names, ahoy), skip this darkly suggestive first chapter of a soon-to-be-major sci-fi franchise at your own risk. The source material is a young-adult series—Suzanne Collins’s three-book juggernaut—but you won’t be sharing a theater row with Team Jacob squealers. Rather, expect a Harry Potter hush of seriousness. And, after the lights dim and our heroine (the scrappy Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone’s fame) gives her first shiver of nausea—she’s about to enter a televised blood match to the death—go ahead and shed a tear of worry. It’s earned.
The Hunger Games, both on page and now as a faithful movie, is an open window onto teenage anxiety. It takes place in the future, but call it today: a hopeless post-America riven by wide disparities of wealth and distracted by reality TV. (Adapting these novels into a small-screen miniseries would have been a coup.) A repressive government keeps the citizenry in line by drafting randomly selected children into an annual gladiatorial contest. That’s already a lot chewier than most escapism; add in a streak of make-or-break media savvy among the “tributes,” and you cringe at what our high-schoolers are steeling themselves for.
Not so shockingly, all of this has made it onscreen as a piece of PG-13 Hollywood entertainment, and if you knit your sophisticated brow at the memory of Kinji Fukasaku’s earlier Battle Royale (2000) or the prophetic Series 7: The Contenders (2001), recall that neither of those films was savvy enough to put its shapely star in a combustible dress. Boldly, The Hunger Games is targeted at the same Project Runway generation that serves as its cannon fodder, a subversive idea: It’s a big-budget movie that could expose more viewers to a vision of their own exploitation than any indie satirist ever hoped to reach.
The ramp-up to the Games is when director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) seems to have the most fun. After Katniss volunteers in place of her younger sister, who is selected at the “reaping,” she and district-mate Peeta (the serviceable Hutcherson) are whisked off to the Capitol, a place as garish and snobby as the outer regions are bleak. They sit for oily interviews with Stanley Tucci’s blue-haired host, work with personal stylists—including a soulful Lenny Kravitz—and meet their alcoholic trainer, Haymitch (Harrelson), the only surviving winner from their depressed coal town. It’s as sickening (and sly) a first half as the multiplex has offered up in a while, equal parts showbiz cynicism, glib bloodlust and slow-burning discontent. (Donald Sutherland is on hand, as he often is in dystopias, to suggest paranoid authority as the President.)
If the movie had a lead actress more delicate or malleable than the strong-cheeked Lawrence—a Natalie Portman, say—it would tip over into sexy-girl-killer celebration; the same goes for Harrelson’s salty mentor, who is never too supportive or paternal. Both performers lean into the economies of survival, certain of the savagery that lies ahead, and come up with sharp work.
So why is it when the violent fights begin, you may find yourself blanching? Soon enough, we’re in a woodsy arena topped by a Truman Show TV sky, watching impalements, flesh burns and genetically mutated wasp stings (don’t ask)—the killings are hardly subtle. Never mind the calculated afterthought of a Katniss and Peeta romance: Can this really be what the kids are reading? It is, and we should get used to it.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf