You would have to be dead to not know that the big screen version of “The Hunger Games” is based upon a series of adolescent novels written by Suzanne Collins. Ms. Collins’ roles in the making of the film as co-writer and executive producer may be assumed to have as much to do with the perfection of the film as the work of writer/director Gary Ross, production designer Philip Messina, and of course, Jennifer Lawrence, who gives a powerful performance as Katniss Everdeen.
In this updating of the Theseus myth with its roots firmly planted in the world of the gladiators, the public reaping has become the way that society “knits itself together.” And if that public reaping is, at the root of it, a horrific act, it can also be looked at as the just punishment for an act of treason. Within that paradox lays the beauty of “The Hunger Games,” a film that achieves an extraordinary feat: It’s an adventure with characters so finely-drawn and a story so deftly told that the audience relates to both the sinners and the sinned against. They embrace both the horror and the justice of the games.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Panem, a country which covers the North American continent, the 12 treasonous districts responsible for said apocalypse are punished each year by the Hunger Games. Two teenagers are chosen by lot from each district then transported to the Capitol where they fight to the death for the entertainment of all.
This particular year is the first time Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields) has been old enough to participate in the reaping – that horrific means by which society knits itself together. After all, watching others fight and die is an excellent way to help the viewers feel safe and superior, is it not? Those who have been reaped – the “Tribute” – enjoy a life of luxury and plenty before their turn in the arena.
When Katniss’ sister is reaped, Katniss volunteers to take her place, an act which is unusual but not unprecedented. Again, this is important in drawing the viewer in: The act is not unprecedented. Who, one has to wonder, volunteered before? What were their reasons? Did they survive? Other questions like those are touched on but not answered; they are left to the viewer’s imagination. Who are these watchers, these animated jelly beans betting on which of these children lives or dies? What are their lives like? What exploitation pays for their luxurious and colorful lives? We know, after all, what exploitation entertains them, don’t we?
This is Lawrence’s movie as she imbues Katniss with that coltish combination of awkwardness and grace which makes it never quite certain that she’s going to win. Rumor has it that she is, indeed, a master with the bow and arrow but, unlike the average hero in the average movie, she occasionally misses. When the adults tell her what to do – most particularly Woody Harrelson’s turn as the much conflicted former winner who acts as Hamish, her mentor – she does what she’s told without sacrificing her … several terms come to mind: dignity; instinct; but the correct phrase is “without sacrificing herself.”
If you’ve been waiting for the movie, give yourself a big treat and go see it.
DIRECTOR: Gary Ross SCREENWRITERS: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins (screenplay and book series), Billy Ray CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Willow Shields RUNTIME: 142 minutes MPAA RATING: PG-13