If Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games turns up on middle-school curricula 50 years from now—and as accessible dystopian science fiction with allusions to early-21st-century strife, that isn’t out of the question—the lazy students of the future can be assured that they can watch the movie version and still get better than a passing grade. But that’s a dubious triumph: A book is a book and a movie is a movie, and whenever the latter merely sets about illustrating the former, it’s a failure of adaptation, to say nothing of imagination. When the goal is simply to be as faithful as possible to the material—as if a movie were a marriage, and a rights contract the vow—the best result is a skillful abridgment, one that hits all the important marks without losing anything egregious. And as abridgments go, they don’t get much more skillful than this one.
That such a safe adaptation could come of The Hunger Games speaks more to the trilogy’s commercial ascent than the book’s actual content, which is audacious and savvy in its dark calculations. In movie terms, it suggests Paul Verhoeven in Robocop/Starship Troopers mode, an R-rated bloodbath where the grim spectacle of children murdering each other on television is bread-and-circuses for the age of reality TV, enforced by a totalitarian regime to keep the masses at bay. It’s “The Most Dangerous Game” by way of The Running Man and Battle Royale, with touches of Survivor and the mass-scale orchestration of The Truman Show. While Collins does include a love triangle, a coming-of-age story, and other YA-friendly elements in the mix, they serve as a Trojan horse to smuggle readers into a hopeless world where love becomes a stratagem and growing up is a matter of basic survival.
Displaying a sturdy professionalism throughout that stops just short of artistry, director Gary Ross, who co-scripted with Collins and Billy Ray, does his strongest work in the early scenes, which set up the stakes with chilling efficiency. The opening crawl (and a stirring propaganda movie) informs us that “The Hunger Games” are an annual event in Panem, a North American nation divided into 12 different districts, each in service to the Capitol, a wealthy metropolis that owes its creature comforts to an oppressive dictatorship. For the 75 years since a district rebellion was put down, The Games have existed as an assertion of the Capital’s power, a winner-take-all contest that touts heroism and sacrifice—participants are called “tributes”— while pitting the districts against each other. At “The Reaping,” a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are taken from each district—with odds determined by age and the number of rations they accept throughout the year—and thrown into a controlled arena, where they’re forced to kill each other until only one survives.
In District 12, a dirt-poor coal-mining community that looks like a Dorothea Lange photograph, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) quietly rebels against the system by hunting game in a forbidden area with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and trading it on the black market. Katniss prepares her meek younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) for her first Reaping, but the odds of a single entry being selected among teenagers with many entries apiece are long. In the film’s most affecting scene, those long odds turn against Prim in a shock that Ross renders in agonizing silence, punctuated only by Katniss screaming that she’ll volunteer in her sister’s place. She’s joined, on the boys’ side, by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son whose earnestness masks a gift for strategy that Katniss lacks. Together, with the help of the drunkard Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the only District 12 citizen ever to win the Games, they challenge tributes that range from sadistic volunteers to crafty kids like the pint-sized Rue (Amandla Stenberg) to the truly helpless and soon-to-be-dead.
The cast of characters doesn’t stop there. Katniss also has a team of stylists, led by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), that cover up for her reticent personality with eye-catching makeup and wardrobe, and she’s trailed by the relentlessly perky Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a sort of kabuki cheerleader for The Games and District 12. Then there are the enforcers of the Capital itself, headed by the diabolical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and including a team of TV commentators (Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones), chief gamemaker Seneca (Wes Bentley), and the Peacekeepers in white stormtrooper get-ups.
And on and on and on. Ross and his screenwriters do well with the unenviable task of setting the table for the series, but with so many characters and subplots to service, they have to ration as stingily as the Capital. The Reaping is one of the few sequences that’s given time to breathe a little, and it makes all the difference—the hushed crowd, neither roused by propaganda nor open in resistance, says everything about the fear and simmering resentment that stirs in the districts. Once Katniss volunteers, The Hunger Games jets from one plot point to another without emphasizing any to great effect. Ross and company deliver on the franchise more effectively than, say, the first Harry Potter movie, but there’s little evidence that they had any other agenda in mind.
The primary strength of Collins’ book is Katniss herself, a model of steel-spined resourcefulness and power whose internal monologue roils with daft naïveté and self-doubt, especially when it comes to reading her supposed allies. Absent that monologue, Ross’ film mostly has the book’s action, and that’s enough for a rousing two hours through the surreality of the Capital—which looks like Dubai meets Nuremberg—and the excitement of the Games themselves, which are sanitized by the PG-13 rating, but nonetheless suspenseful and dread-soaked. And beyond the mayhem are the periodic reminders that the Games are as rigged as any reality show; as with a casino, it’s important that the house always wins, even if that means making up the rules as it goes along.
The Hunger Games has its share of standalone payoffs, though some are too sketchily developed to have much of an impact, like Katniss’ motherly connection to Rue. Nonetheless, it’s the first act in a three-act story, and characters who seem thin now may resonate more down the line. With all the dirty work out of the way, perhaps the sequels will come closer to channeling the revolutionary fervor of Collins’ books, and perhaps given the current focus on income inequality, find a populist edge in the process. Whether the films will take on a life of their own is another matter: As of the first installment, it’s stenography in light.