In her book “Hunger Games,” Collins presents a dystopian society called “Panem” comprised of “haves” and “have nots,” where the majority are alienated and individualism is restricted by the government, drawing similarity to the arguments about the 99%ers to 1%ers of today. Collins says that she developed the idea from the myth of Theseus where kids were sent to die by a cruel dictator, from the Roman gladiators fighting to the death in the arena, and from being astonished at how people were willing to degrade themselves in TV reality shows. Panem and the “Games” are presented as a society repressed and controlled by the state, under the guise of being a utopian society.
Every year on Reaping Day, a boy and a girl (ages 12 to 18) from each district are chosen by lottery to fight to the death in a televised gladiator event devised by head Games-maker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, from “American Beauty” ), sporting the coolest beard you have ever seen shaped like a crown. "The Games" were invented by the Capitol of Panem (formerly North America) for the 12 districts whose rebellion against the Capitol rule was crushed more than 74 years ago. The Capitol is filmed as a “modern-day” city of high rises and cold-concrete buildings where the ruling class live a pampered life of all the finest that is offered. Napoleonic (originally Greco-Roman) furniture intermixed with contemporary crystal chandeliers add a sense of privilege showing the images of the Capital (capitalist??) as a people of “haves” that enjoy their daily lives, to be entertained once a year by the Games. Adding to this sense of entitlement, the residents of the Capital are dressed in modern-day versions of the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, with their blue wig-coiffed hair and white blush. The Capital reeks of decadence and wealth.
Juxtaposed with the opulence of the Capital are the 12 Districts, where poverty and subservience are the norm. We are introduced to District 12, a coal mining District where the 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), hunts for scraps to feed her sister and her widowed mother. Residents of District 12 dress in drab greys and do not have enough even to feed themselves. They are “guarded” by “peacekeepers” dressed in all white much like that in “Star Wars,” who seem in total modern/futuristic contrast to their downtrodden subjects. It is also a startling resemblance to the police who have put on “riot-gear” to arrest members of OWS and, most recently, George Clooney during his protest over Sudan.
In each of the Districts, watching the Gamers is not an option as it is mandated by the Capital. We are introduced to Katniss, the renegade hunter who kills with a bow and arrow. Lawrence, 21, who plays Katniss Everdeen, is an acting dynamo with the skills to let us into Katniss' searching mind. Last year, Lawrence won an Oscar nomination for playing an Ozark girl in "Winter's Bone”. She dominates the screen and presents a performance that is again Oscar worthy.
During the introduction to the Games where the Tributes (that's what contenders are called) are chosen, Katniss is presented with the moral dilemma of her younger sister being picked as a Tribute for the games. Rather than let her die, Katniss stands up to take the place of her younger sister in the deadly Games. In just those first scenes, Lawrence reveals a physical and emotional grace that is astonishing.
Katniss is first shown hunting in the wild forest with her fellow illegal hunter Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, "The Last Song," with girlfriend Miley Cyrus). He is a handsome young boy from her District 12, a hunk, with whom she has grown-up. Hemsworth quickly establishes a strong and appealing Romeo to Lawrence’s Juliet.
She is then paired, for the Games, with, the baker's son, Petta (Josh Hutcherson, "The Kids Are All Right"), a boy who must quickly grow up to be a man. It is revealed that he has secretly pinned for Katniss most of his life, thus setting up a love triangle with Hemsworth’s Gale.
What sets Hunger Games apart from other movies of the genre is the incredible acting. In addition to Lawrence, Hutcherson and Hemsworth, the rest of the cast is brilliant.
Stanley Tucci (who needs no introduction), who is always brilliant, is Caesar Flickerman, the reality-TV host, who represents the dark side of Ryan Seacrest in the Game’s lethal version of "American Idol." He is a demented host of the “Price is Right” takes on Gladiator. In his blue-coiffed wig, he is both circus master and salesman.
Elizabeth Banks (nearly unrecognizable, from Zack and Miri Make a Porno amongst many others), in a turn as High-School Principal turned “Freddy” from “Halloween”, brings a malicious wit to the bewigged and powdered PR guru Effie Trinket. "May the odds be ever in your favor," announces Effie with total, and careless sincerity (which, in such a god-less, atheist society, eerily reminds one of the phrase "may God be with you").
In a stellar performance, Woody Harrelson (wearing the best California Hippie wig ever and coming off a fantastic performance in "Game Change") is the drunkard, Haymitch Abernathy, a former victor in the Games now acting as mentor to both Katniss and Peeta. Haymitch is presented as the troubled victor who is the key to any chance of survival by Kitness and Petta, when he's not falling-down drunk. In a perfect turn on the 99% vs. 1%, Haymitch instructs his protégés that they must ingratiate themselves to rich sponsors in the Capita, so that during the Games they may receive supplies and medicine as a Tribute wins audience favor.
In a turn of “The Swan” meets “Mad Max’, each of the Tributes is given a fashionista stylist to package and brand their warrior's image and veneer. Katniss and Petta are “remade” as a his and her “Mercury” by “Cinna (Lenny Kravitz in a great cameo) with flames on fire riding into the Games of a chariot. For her “beauty-pageant” style question and answer, Cinna , in order to have Katniss stand-out from the other Tributes, creates a dress that bursts into flame at the hem, making Katniss a “favorite” of the crowds. Mixing beauty with the beast, Katniss is then shown in a test of skill, where, with her bow, she is a modern day Joan of Arc, with her determination and skill.
Finally the stage is set with the “overlord”, the President of Panem , President Snow (masterfully played by Donald Sutherland, who is frightening in his cold-evil). His cry of "You screwed us, so we'll screw you” sets the perfect anthem for this dystopian society where good has been replaced by evil. It is truly a “bad place” as is derived from the Greek origin of the word dystopian.
In the vein of today’s reality-celebrity, the Tributes must also learn to play and pander to the cameras. Formerly shy and somewhat introverted, Katniss is forced to become a smiling Kim Kardashian plying for Sponsor’s attention. In this false reality one is left to question whether Katniss’s and Petta’s actions are real or fake. Is Katniss really falling for Peeta as she nurses his wounds, or is she faking it to save them both?
The movie is masterfully shot by Tom Stern ("Mystic River") with the scenes dramatically changing from the dark mining of District 12, to the Marie Antoinette opulence of the Capitol; only to be transported to the stark and brutal landscape of the battle zone.
At 142 minutes, "The Hunger Games" can go from fast paced to dragging; however, director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville," "Seabiscuit") does a good job of keeping the movie true to the book.
“Hunger Games” the movie, which opened on March 23, 2012, is already a huge financial success; yet, is fraught with controversy. Is the movie original or just a take-off on other movies/books (Battle Royale, 1984, etc.)? Is the subject matter (children killing other children) appropriate for children? Do the premises glorify violence and desensitize children to violence? And, of course, does the movie live up to the book?
While one could debate these points ad nauseum, such debate overlooks the merits of the story in and of itself and disregards the film without commenting upon the cinematic quality of what is presented. Without belaboring such criticism I would suggest that (acknowledging that I may never convince people who differ):
Is the movie original or just a take-off on other movies/books (Battle Royale, 1984, etc.)? Many authors borrow heavily from other works and it is fine. Imagine if Lerner and Lowe had tried to sell My Fair Lady as a wholly original work without acknowledging that it was an adaptation of G.B. Shaw's Pygmallion which itself is an adaptation of a Greekmyth. Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman was another adaptation. Even Romeo and Juliet is just another version of Pyramus and Thisbe.
Is the subject matter (children killing other children) appropriate for children? Do the premises glorify violence and desensitize children to violence? The story involves violence, children killing children, so is not appropriate for everyone. Nevertheless, the overall theme of “good” versus “evil” is a strong lesson for today. It is a “1984” for 2012.
Does the movie live up to the book? It is always difficult to compare books with movies, as seldom do readers find a movie “better” than the book. When reading a book, we make our own visual interpretation of the written word, whereas in a movie, the film-makers present their interpretation of such book. The question should more properly be framed as “whether the movie lives up to book?” I will let you be the final judge.