In the world of “The Hunger Games,” the celebrity culture and media overload of our age have been rolled back to something that approximates the middle of the 20th century, crossed with the Roman Empire. Instead of today’s narrow-casted onslaught of Internet, cable and satellite entertainment, there’s one TV channel and one reality show, which occupies the entire culture as nothing has in the real world since perhaps O.J.’s Bronco chase, or the Challenger disaster. In Panem, “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins’ nightmarish future version of America, it’s as if the first season of “Survivor” or “American Idol” is on the air year after year, with real killings, no competition and ratings that never go down.
It’s an interesting scenario, I suppose, but how did this happen? Nothing in Collins’ books, or in director Gary Ross’ simultaneously chaotic and desultory film adaptation, even tries to explain that (or seems aware of it as a narrative problem). Somewhere amid the civil war and widespread destruction and rise of a totalitarian state that forms the scanty back story of “The Hunger Games,” the collective knowingness and jadedness and pseudo-sophistication of the Information Revolution society has evaporated. Or at least it has among the subject populations, in the outlying districts annually compelled to supply young combatants to the Hunger Games. Where Collins’ heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, in the movie) grows up, in the Appalachian coal-mining zone called District 12, willowy women in print dresses with flyaway hair live in tumbledown shacks, looking for all the world as if they just stepped out of a Dorothea Lange photo essay from 1937. (Have blue jeans for women and indoor plumbing been abolished, along with consumer society, corporate capitalism and postmodernity in general?)
If that sounds like too much intellectual heavy lifting to apply to a girl-centric action-romance that mashes up a bunch of disparate influences and ingredients, from Greek mythology to Orwell to Stephen King, well, it probably is. My point is that the patchwork of “The Hunger Games” never really holds together or makes any sense, except as an elementary fairy tale about a young girl’s coming of age and an incipient romantic triangle (which is the focus of the film, far more than the book). In Collins’ novel, the first-person narration and Katniss’ intense physical and psychological struggle seize center stage and overwhelm the threadbare situation, at least to some degree. Ross’ movie version — co-written by him, Collins and Billy Ray — is probably adequate to satisfy hardcore fans, but only just. It’s a hash job that offers intriguing moments of social satire and delightful supporting performances, but subsumes much of the book’s page-turning drama to sub-“Twilight” teen romance. Of course it will make a zillion dollars opening weekend, but I’m not convinced this franchise will be as ginormous, in the long run, as Hollywood hopes.
It’s easy to be seduced by something that’s both as clever and as successful as “The Hunger Games,” and to conclude that it must have something to say about violence and the media and changing ideas of femininity and other hot-button topics it appears to address. But as becomes even clearer in the movie version, it really doesn’t. It’s a cannily crafted entertainment that refers to ideas without actually possessing any, beyond an all-purpose populism that could appeal just as easily to a Tea Partyer as to a left-winger. If not more so — the true villain of “The Hunger Games” is the all-powerful state, and the population of Panem’s capital city (in Ross’ movie, and to some extent in the book too) is a decadent, affected and polysexual media elite, whose outrageous peacock fashions suggest the court of Marie Antoinette appearing in a Duran Duran video.
In fact, “The Hunger Games” is precisely the thing it pretends to disapprove of: a pulse-elevating spectacle meant to distract us from the unsatisfying situation of the real world, and to offer a simulated outlet for youthful disaffection and anxiety (in this case, the anxieties of girls and young women in particular). Bread and circuses, only without the bread, and pretending to be anti-circus. I’m not claiming that’s anything new in pop culture, and it certainly isn’t a crime. Furthermore, the shapeless politics of “The Hunger Games” have very little to do with the question of whether it’s any good, although they do illustrate how calculated the whole project is.
About one ingredient there can be little question: “The Hunger Games” announces Jennifer Lawrence’s arrival as an A-list movie star, likely at or near the level of “Twilight’s” Kristen Stewart. I’m not sure that Ross — a longtime Hollywood insider who co-wrote “Big” for Tom Hanks, and wrote and directed “Seabiscuit” — asks Lawrence to do half as much acting as she did in “Winter’s Bone,” but she commands the screen with effortless magnetism, a noble innocent who is gorgeous but not quite sexy, simultaneously a tomboy and a princess. As I saw clearly for the first time, the character is clearly meant to invoke Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. When her younger sister’s name is drawn, against all odds, at the annual “reaping” for Hunger Games contestants, Katniss steps forward to take her place, beginning her appointment with destiny and her confrontation with the cruelty of the Capitol. She’s leaving behind her friend, hunting partner and maybe-kinda boyfriend Gale, played woodenly, or perhaps beefily, by smoldering male-model type Liam Hemsworth.
As Collins’ readers already know, Katniss must battle to the death against 23 other “tributes” aged 12 to 18 — one boy and one girl from each of the 12 subservient districts — in an arena that appears to be a natural outdoor setting but may not be. Now we know why Ross and the film’s producers didn’t show us any footage of the actual Hunger Games combat in advance: They hadn’t shot any until last week. OK, that’s unfair. Most of the book’s Games encounters are here, in abbreviated form, but Ross and company have streamlined the story and altered several details (some significantly), and the whole thing feels ultra-perfunctory. Almost no actual bloodshed is depicted (in deference to the required PG-13 rating), and during the fight sequences cinematographer Tom Stern relies on a wobbly, nonsensical, quick-cut style that leaves you utterly unsure about who has killed whom, and may have you squeezing your eyes shut to avoid throwing up. The problem really isn’t the lack of explicit violence; far more important, we get no sense of the hunger, thirst, cold, disease and harrowing physical torment undergone by Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the shy, blond District 12 baker’s son who has long loved her from afar. OK, they get a few superficial nicks and scratches, but they look as well-fed and runway-ready in the second half of the movie as they did at the beginning.
I have many more bones to pick with the Games — the Cornucopia, used by the game designers to lure contestants into a free-for-all? So bogus! — but when you pull back and look at the fripperies around the edges of Ross’ “Hunger Games,” it becomes much more entertaining and nearly worthwhile. Stanley Tucci is amazing as Caesar Flickerman, the host of the Hunger Games broadcast. All of a sudden, this universe without media savvy becomes all about media savvy, all wrapped into this unctuous persona whose sincerity is so fake it becomes real (or the other way around), and whose dazzling smile is at once comforting and terrifying. As he so often can, Woody Harrelson turns Haymitch, a drunken past winner of the Games from Katniss’ district, into a fascinating and mysterious figure, even though the script gives him little to do. Wes Bentley plays a game designer who must frequently consult with Panem’s sinister president (Donald Sutherland, apparently playing Brigham Young), in expository scenes that aren’t in the book but provide helpful background.
I also dug Lenny Kravitz, playing a stylist named Cinna who grooms Katniss for the Games — the only person she meets in the decadent Capitol who has a shred of genuineness or integrity — and becomes her confidant. In his sly, androgynous sexiness, Kravitz has way more chemistry and connection with Lawrence than do Hemsworth or Hutcherson, playing the two lunkheads supposedly smitten with Katniss. I’d way rather watch a love story about Katniss and Cinna than the lightweight Twi-triangle inflicted on us by Ross, who has (with Collins’ permission, evidently) stripped his heroine of almost all her Artemis-like uncertainty about boys and romance. (In the book, you couldn’t be quite sure Katniss wasn’t a lesbian, at least at first.)
But we’re not getting Katniss and Cinna, of course, and we don’t get anything that feels remotely like an ending in this clunky, clumsy adaptation; the story reaches a certain point and the curtain simply drops. Wait another year and spend another $12, and you’ll get another chapter. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but that just seems mean (and neither the Harry Potter nor the “Twilight” series were quite this blatant about it). I realize it will probably work, or work well enough. “The Hunger Games” has some cool moments here and there, and is never entirely dreadful. Lawrence is both radiant and triumphant. They haven’t screwed it up badly enough to kill it, although they’ve tried. Go ahead and put that on your poster.