Jennifer Lawrence is unlikely heroine Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.
We live in a highly Balkanized culture where no single band or musician under the age of 30 can sell out a football stadium. So when there’s a literary series that everyone seems to be reading, it’s comforting to find that a shared experience can still exist. The Hunger Games is the latest literary franchise to be adapted to film, and it’s far more interesting than either Harry Potter or Twilight. Where those franchises were galvanized by adolescent escapism, The Hunger Games takes a particular teenage mindset—an apocalyptic-besieged alienation—and creates a whole dystopia around it. It makes the simple connection that everyone feels like this in Orwellian dystopias, and you don’t just get humiliated—you get humiliated and murdered.
The story of The Hunger Games is not particularly original: it’s a pastiche of The Running Man, A Handmaid’s Tale, and Battle Royale. In a fascistic future, the wealthy ruling Capitol exercises control over its impoverished districts by selecting teenagers to fight to the death in a televised pageant, until one victor remains.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the Appalachian District 12, bow hunting for squirrels to feed her family. When her much more fragile and frightened sister is picked for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers herself and is joined by Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a local boy she has an ambiguous history with. The rest of the movie lays out the culture of the Capitol (sort of like a fascistic Nicki Minaj video directed by Ken Russell), the structure of the games, and then, of course, the games themselves.
Nothing in The Hunger Games is as revelatory or risky as Battle Royale, Children of Men, 12 Monkeys, or even the heavily underrated A Boy and His Dog, but there’s a subtly to it that’s effective in this type of blockbuster. Gary Ross, the solid workmanlike director behind Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, gives the film a seriousness that’s neither ponderous nor pretentious. He expertly handles the subtext of economic inequality and patriarchal tyranny as well, and nothing—especially given that this is ultimately a movie for teenagers—is overwrought. Ross gets universally good work from his actors, especially a star-making turn by Jennifer Lawrence, who’s beautiful, strong, and vulnerable, often simultaneously.
The Hunger Games opened to over $150 million in three days—the third biggest opening ever. It goes to show that despite the general consensus, audiences want some thinking and feeling with their entertainment. A-