"The Hunger Games" is a little bit "The Most Dangerous Game," a little bit "Lord of the Flies," a little bit "The Truman Show," and a whole lot "Battle Royale," the Japanese novel-turned-film about teens forced to battle to the death.
In the court -- or, in this case, on the court of public opinion, the film version of "The Hunger Games" has already won. The young-adult novel's legion of fans, young and old, has largely embraced the casting and preview footage doled out by Lionsgate (ever after the "Twilight" studio), culminating in reportedly record-breaking ticket pre-sales.
Even those totally unfamiliar with Suzanne Collins' book may find Gary Ross' film somewhat less than suspenseful. The intensity has been found more in the publicity blitz (are you Team Gale or Team Peeta?) than in the film it promotes. But if "The Hunger Games" on screen doesn't exactly catch fire (as does its hero Katniss Everdeen), its savvy pop culture mash-up and the charge of teens in life-and-death peril remain intact.
In a retro-futuristic dystopia, the 1-percenters long ago crushed the revolt of the 99-percenters. The rule of fear hinges largely on "the Hunger Games," an annual compulsory lottery (thank you, Shirley Jackson) that demands 12- to 18-year-old "tributes" to submit to a televised death match. Two weeks, 24 contestants, and only one victor allowed to walk away alive.
Two contestants come from each of 12 districts. When the District 12 lottery demands 12-year-old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), her 16-year-old sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) dramatically volunteers to take Prim's place. It's the first of many dramas -- all, in some sense, manufactured -- that characterize the Romanesque circus of the Games.
From their rural, gray, utter impoverishment, Katniss and male draw Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) find themselves thrust into the colorful, unimaginable decadence of the Capitol, where privilege and ostentation go hand in hand. This world is embodied by flittering escort Effie Trinket (a zanily outfitted Elizabeth Banks) and maniacally happy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), but two of the adults show sympathy for the teens: personal stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and official mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), an alcoholic former champion.
Oddly, the early scenes laying this groundwork tend to be considerably more lively than the 74th Annual Games themselves, a sign of Ross' lack of experience as an action director and the film's squeamishness when it comes to depicting the story's gruesomely violent side. The battle scenes are blurs, shot on the choppy waves of shaky-cam and rendered yet more choppy by editors making the best of the footage (including Oscar-winning local hero Stephen Mirrione).
Happily, Collins' characters and universe are a darn sight more interesting than those of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight." Straight-arrow-shooting Katniss makes a compelling feminist hero, and Lawrence's resonant performance delivers. Though a bit hobbled by his character's relative ambiguity, Hutcherson sells Peeta's whip-smart media savvy and his romantic vulnerability. For, like "Twilight," "The Hunger Games" incorporates a swoony romantic triangle amongst TV-anointed "star-crossed lovers" Katniss and Peeta and Katniss' hulking hometown sweetheart Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
"The Hunger Games" is a little bit "The Most Dangerous Game," a little bit "Lord of the Flies," a little bit "The Truman Show," and a whole lot "Battle Royale," the Japanese novel-turned-film about teens forced to battle to the death. The latter film's boldness overshadows Ross' work, but "The Hunger Games"' striking production design goes a long way, and the story could be a conversation-starter for families about the voyeurism and willing manipulation of the American viewing public.