The dystopian world created by author Suzanne Collins and inhabited by her teen heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is intended as a fearsome place. Lest you wonder whether such a setting constitutes appropriate PG-13 rated fare, rest assured, it’s neither too frightening, too tense, nor too unhappy. The much-loved Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is never in any credible danger.
That is, unless you consider becoming a sellout, a pretense Katniss is forced to undertake in order to prevent President Snow (Donald Sutherland wearing a General Custer mop of white hair) from killing her family, dangerous.
Snow wants Katniss dead because she’s a threat after having defied the rules of the 74th “Hunger Games.” This annual contest pits teen tributes plucked from 12 districts against one another in a fight to the death. There can be only one victor, but Katniss’ clever manipulation of public sentiment painted Peeta and herself as lovers refusing to kill one another. Both were allowed to survive. Their defiance gave hope to the oppressed peoples of Panem, but hope is the one commodity President Snow will not abide.
Though Katniss claims to love local hunk Gale (Liam Hemsworth), she admires sad-eyed co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and let’s face it, he’s cute. The pair are accompanied on their 12-district tour — set up for the purpose of toeing the party line — and are advised on how to best play their roles by Capitol envoy Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). Katniss is troubled by the signs of rebellion her presence incites among the disenfranchised populace because “Star Wars”-like storm troopers execute the offenders.
Snow and his new game overseer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), conspire to recall previous Hunger Games winners for the 75th anniversary of the games, a rule change intended to eliminate Katniss once and for all. At training camp for the games Katniss refuses to make alliances with tributes other than Peeta, and she repeatedly implores their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) to promise he will do everything in his power to save Peeta, even if that means allowing Katniss to die.
Whether Katniss is tired of being manipulated or whether she believes Peeta is a more deserving choice remains unclear, but she feels guilty about previously killing contestants in self defense or to protect more vulnerable tributes. However, no sooner do the Hunger Games begin before Katniss throws her and Peeta’s lot into an unspoken alliance with a handful of other tribute couples.
Unfortunately, the story consistently veers toward melodrama, creating little tension. Jennifer Lawrence, capable of conveying both intensity and deep emotion, appears 10 years older than her co-star and love interest Josh Hutcherson.
Though the action entertains, the characters are underwritten in favor of grand sequences that fail to take flight.
Thanks to the cohesion of Collins’s imagination and director Francis Lawrence’s realization of her vision, the film’s glorious visuals constitute the best reason to see it. The fantasy-science fiction storyline makes social commentary appropo of a totalitarian nation such as North Korea. In the U.S. the closest we get to the Hunger Games is American Idol.
Nevertheless, Collins’s books are wildly popular, assuring that each of the four film adaptations will ring up nearly a billion dollars in ticket sales. It’s great that “The Hunger Games” can be counted among the more wholesome choices — I only wish it could also be counted among the more satisfying.