In this girl-takes-on-the-world saga, we never actually see Mary Richards throw her hat into the air, but it feels as though we do. Jennifer Lawrence, of the acclaimed "Winter's Bone," plays Katniss, the girl pitted against a rigged system. Like Mary, she possesses integrity and extreme loyalty, qualities generally missing from the television media constituting Mary's milieu and from the dystopian Panem (formerly North America) that Katniss inhabits in a future world.
Adapted from the first in a series of books by Suzanne Collins, we wonder how anyone in the outlying 12 districts survives because food supplies are severely rationed. Lacking sufficient sustenance and electricity, these fenced districts remind me of a Jewish ghetto under Hitler's regime.
At 18, Katniss is the eldest of two and caretaker for younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields). Katniss is thrust into this role because their precarious situation had pushed their mother into a debilitating depression. Wicked good with a bow and arrow, Katniss routinely makes her way through a breach in the fence that separates her district from the outside world, to hunt squirrel, birds and other prey found in the neighboring woods. It isn't clear why only she and Gale Hawthorne - the boy she sorta likes played by hunky model Liam Hemsworth - are the only two taking advantage of nature's bounty, but in contrast to the adults, the kids appear well-fed.
Their truce with this hardscrabble existence is threatened by the totalitarian state. Each year, the annual "Reaping" requires all 12 districts submit one boy and one girl, aged 12 to 18, to the annual gladiatorial-style games from which only one survivor will emerge.
The capital city sends an emissary to draw the combatants' names from a fishbowl while those of appropriate age stand at attention, decked out in their finest shabby clothes. District 12's bowl indicates there aren't more than 150 choices when 12-year-old Primrose's name is drawn. To save her little sister, Katniss volunteers in the girl's stead and is accepted. The boy chosen from her district is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), an admirer of Katniss and one of her few friends.
They are marched off to the capital, where the populace enjoys extreme luxury. Marie Antoinette fashion is all the rage - along with neon make-up and wigs for both men and women. Future combatants, held in tasteful dwellings and provided with personal stylists, are trotted out to be adored by a fawning media. They are fed a sumptuous diet that surely causes them to find the situation of those starving back home inexplicable.
Though comprising just 20 minutes or so, this portion of the 142-minute film drags on as it repeatedly shows us that a few make out like bandits while the masses suffer. Katniss and Peeta are meant to be mentored by their district's past winner, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), but he appears to be a drunk who cynically defends his existence as a grown-up, spoiled brat.
Following the briefest training session, the kids are set loose in the arena, a several-square-mile area of forest and meadows.
The ensuing action establishes Katniss's unshakable integrity as she comes to the aid of those in need, and kills only when her life, or that of whomever she protects, is in imminent danger. We see little or nothing of the skilled huntress others discuss, but much of her heartwarming devotion to the innocent. Meanwhile, back at capital headquarters, the futuristic technology we'd expect in the future proves to be alive and well, used to manipulate the games to ensure they are good TV.
Where Collins set out to externalize the struggles of adolescence, the film adaptation of "The Hunger Games" drops the ball, cloaking its central character in the warm fuzzies. However, it amusingly illuminates the manipulative info-tainment machine - the studios behind our news, reality shows and movies. We would all do well to distrust this machine, even as we submit to the entertainment it offers up - including this film.