For most people, The Hunger Games needs no introduction—which is a good thing, because the movie assumes that you’ve already read Suzanne Collins’ best-selling series of young-adult novels, and arguably demonstrates a certain amount of contempt for you if you haven’t. So let’s speedily dispense with the basic scenario: In a dystopian future, the former U.S. has been divided into 12 districts, each of which, as a penalty for a long-ago uprising, must send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in a nationally televised battle to the death each year. Only one participant will emerge alive, and our rooting interest in the 74th annual Hunger Games is one Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a scrappy 16-year-old girl from the impoverished District 12, who volunteers to serve in place of her younger sister, Primrose, when the latter is selected by lottery.
So far, so familiar, since the idea of blood sport as mass entertainment has a long history: Rollerball, The Running Man, Gladiator, etc. It’s already been done with kids (in the Japanese cult favorite Battle Royale, not coincidentally out on video this week) and as an annual reality show (in the little-seen, low-budget Series 7: The Contenders). But The Hunger Games, as originally written by Collins, cannily suggests that while Katniss is a whiz with a bow and arrow, her skill means nothing compared to the much more difficult task of seducing the viewers at home, who can act as “sponsors” and send assistance to their favorites. When her District 12 cohort, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), declares his love for Katniss in a pre-Games interview, a door of opportunity swings open—one that will eventually find the Gamemakers revising the rules on the behalf of the “star-crossed lovers.”
What’s frustrating about the movie, directed by Gary Ross with the same lumbering, overemphatic touch he brought to Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, is how little of this registers onscreen. Collins wrote in the first person, from Katniss’ perspective, and while Lawrence is a forceful, fiery presence (as she was in Winter’s Bone, playing another backwoods teen forced by circumstance into a world of adult violence), she can’t fill the hole created by the loss of the character’s interior monologue. Ross has to double down on spectacle, which results only in shoddy CGI views of the future nation’s decadent Capitol and, once the Games begin, a great deal of incoherent shaky-cam designed to ensure that rampant bloody mayhem doesn’t threaten the all-important PG-13 rating.
Worst of all, the film deliberately mutes the open question of whether and to what degree Katniss and Peeta’s romantic feelings for each other are manufactured as a cynical winning strategy, to the point where that angle is barely perceptible to those who haven’t been primed by the novel(s). Somebody clearly realized that it might be possible to present a conventional love story to the uninitiated while simultaneously providing readers with glancing hints at the book’s much thornier agenda. Such bet-hedging, as you might imagine, only creates a movie with no sense of creative risk.