If you look at the scope and context of The Hunger Games, particularly measured against its downright subversive subtext, you have to come away impressed by the level of achievement. The idea that you could get a PG-13 movie into theaters that's based, even a little bit, on children being rounded up by the state and forced to murder each other for the amusement of a mass audience is, on the face of it, a wacky business. You'd have been laughed out of Hollywood with this a few decades back, even with Battle Royale as precedent, even with equally subversive films (V for Vendetta, Fight Club, Trainspotting) having made their way to theaters before collapsing under the weight of their apparent cultural disconnect. Based upon only The Hunger Games being adapted, you'd have to look around, measure current cultural temperatures, and think "Well, something has changed." But what? And to what level is this simply a teen love triangle with Running Man playing in the background? These are tough questions. We'll attempt to answer them.
The Hunger Games starts in Mississippi. No, not really, as North America has ceased to exist, and along with it Mississippi, but the film certainly starts in a poor rural community (noted as Appalachia in the book) called "District 12" where the pride and struggle of the populace is apparent on their weather-worn faces. These are hard scrabble folk, and they look after their own, but they lack for infrastructure. The people of District 12 don't live, they just survive. The "Capitol" of Panem lords over twelve districts, and once per year comes "The Reaping", where they round up two "tributes" from each district, a boy and a girl, to play in the Capitol's "Hunger Games", to remind everyone who is boss, and on behalf of commerce and excellent (mandatory) television ratings. These "Hunger Games" pit district against district, tribute against tribute, in a fight to the death. Pomp and circumstance surround the games, juxtaposed against yoke of oppression put upon the poor downtrodden outer districts, and when the emissary from The Capitol, Effie (Elizabeth Banks) tries to get the crowd fired up for two of their own's demise they greet her with the hardened stares of people who have always gotten the short end of the stick. They are not amused. The people of District 12 are hungry, impoverished, and kept in line only by Panem's "peacekeepers". They produce coal for Panem, but they never see the wealth. It's a recipe for civil unrest, massive injustice presented to a people who never had a say on any of the rules in the first place.
Enter Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). She's a District 12-er, she provides for her Mom and Sister with her (illegal) hunting. She shows up at The Reaping with a decent shot at being chosen for "The Hunger Games," but with a couple thousand other eligible young adults also in the pool she's hoping she won't be picked, and she's not. However, her sister is, and she instinctively volunteers to take her place. These are heart wrenching scenes, a big sister protecting her little sis', things being unfair simply because that's the way they are. Her co-tribute is the baker's son, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). They are whisked off to the capitol with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) by their side, somewhat drunk, ready to send another couple of young adults to their deaths for no reason excepting the sheer spectacle of it all.
It is during "The Hunger Games" that things get truly interesting. Little humans take it on the chin, even if it's handled in cutaway fashion. Is everyone in Panem a bad person to allow this "sacrifice" year after year? No, not exactly. Katniss' stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), is a particularly empathetic and talented human. But where can the line between entertainment and inhumanity be drawn? Yes, The Hunger Games is an extreme version of the society we currently live in, but it's not so disparate as to not send a cold chill down your spine. Still, the concepts get lost and muddied, especially given the narrative clarity of the source material. Is this a story about Peeta and Katniss falling in love to survive? Or is it about President Snow and the effect of a government that rules through fear and intimidation? What, precisely, is all this adding up to? Should it be lauded for correctly noting the rise of the woman, or judged as the outcry of the 99 percent? Perhaps it's about African genocide or the Iraq War, infomercials or maybe nothing at all. So many caveats have been made to make this commercially palatable that the underlying tone of the book is probably lost, even as the whisper of its drumbeat is picked up in certain moments. That, along with the knowledge that things get REAL real in the sequels, makes many of the choices understandable ... if not completely exemplary.
Where higher marks must be given is with a few of the actors. Stanley Tucci is excellent as Caesar Flickerman, the lead announcer and MC of "The Hunger Games", he's both helpful to the tributes chances (making them seem sympathetic in their murderous quest) while still standing as a symbol of everything that's wrong with Panem. It's a difficult balancing act, but Tucci delivers. Lenny Kravitz is also understated and effective as Cinna, Katniss' stylist, a man who clearly understands more about the politics of the day than is safe to divulge. Jennifer Lawrence works as Katniss, though the case could be made that her character is largely a blank slate for the audience to place their own emotions and values upon. Kudos also must be handed out to Elizabeth Banks, as the extremely annoying Effie Trinket, who regularly commands the screen. As for the other "tributes", they are almost unnoticeable with the exception Rue (Amandla Stenberg), Cato (Alexander Ludwig) and Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi). All three have extremely limited screen time but do their level best given the inherent restrictions. In terms of a broader critique, the script isn't all there, a few of the transitions are awkward, and the movie does become bogged down by a lack of a central theme - but it's also massively ambitious, well paced, and extremely innovative. As such, judgment must be passed in favor of The Hunger Games, and the sequels will be highly anticipated.
Still, the most disquieting aspect of this whole enterprise can be found in those bleak moments where the strong are effectively dominating the weak. "The Hunger Games" are being broadcast all around the country, with friends and relatives watching their loved ones perish in real time, tribute against tribute with life on the line. Director Gary Ross has made these moments brutally effective, continually chiding us for wanting the games to start again. It's the damnedest thing, but human suffering and subjugation plays miraculously well as entertainment, so long as you mix it all up with glossy production values and multiple camera angles.