When the film adaptation of an immensely popular novel preserves those elements that made the book a success, it is bound to become a classic. Such was the case with Gone With the Wind and The Godfather. And such will be the case, I predict, with The Hunger Games, Gary Ross’s film version of Suzanne Collins’s bestselling young-adult novel. So assured is its box-office success that it seems almost beside the point to ask if The Hunger Games is a truly good entertainment. But let’s ask the question anyway.

First, let me confess that I am one of the nine or ten people on the planet who haven’t read the book, so I’m judging the movie strictly as a movie. I’m trusting reports that a substantial portion of the book’s plot has been preserved in the screenplay. That plot is, to use a fashionable academic term, multivalent. Its meanings multiply as the narrative develops, each appealing to some segment of Hunger’s broad fan base.

Parallels to contemporary society abound. In a distant future, North America has become the totalitarian nation Panem. While its capital is a place of riches and wondrously advanced technology, the rest of the country, divided into twelve districts, suffers medieval poverty, its inhabitants living more desperately than serfs. So, parallel one: here we have contemporary America, with its widening chasm between the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, nightmarishly magnified into a dystopia worthy of Orwell.

To punish a failed revolt, Panem’s plutocratic rulers instituted the annual Hunger Games seventy-four years ago. A group of adolescents, two from each district, must compete against one another in a hazard-ridden forest until the last survivor emerges as victor. Though some of them may fall victim to the elements, inevitably the winner will be a killer. Not only is the event a form of brutal retribution (think of Saddam Hussein crushing the Kurds), it’s also a lulling entertainment for the masses (think of the Roman gladiatorial games). The televised Games simultaneously echo the decadence of ancient Europe and the tyrannies of the modern Middle East. More parallels.

And that’s not all. The young survivalists, selected by lottery, are coiffed, accoutered, primped, prepped, and interviewed like movie stars before being released into savagery. Recalling Survivor and other reality TV shows in which contestants have to endure raw nature, disgusting food or, worst of all, Donald Trump, aren’t the games also an extrapolation of our culture of instant celebrity? But since our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, has volunteered as a substitute for her younger sister, isn’t she a paradigm for Christian self-sacrifice—and also, given her bravery and archery skills, a kick-ass poster child for heroic feminism?

The screenplay corrals all these themes and parallels with great care, never allowing topicality to become insultingly explicit or to detract from the suspenseful action. In scenes that satirize celebrity culture, the dialogue is flashy and funny; in the action sequences, it’s terse and functional. As for Gary Ross’s direction, it becomes expert after a bad start. My heart sank during the first twenty minutes, in which too many close-ups and too much choppy, almost hysterical editing detach characters from their environment. We don’t get a very good sense of the squalid poverty of Katniss’s district and the way it has both starved and toughened her. It’s as if Ross were so eager for the Games to begin that he felt he had to skim the prelude.

But once the main event gets underway, the close-in camerawork and fast editing come into their own. They make us share Katniss’s discombobulation at being thrust into the gaudy limelight and at the imminence of death. The publicity circus, marvelously depicted as a ghastly blend of smarmy sentimentality (“We are so moved by the sacrifice you’ve made for your sister”) and ruthless exploitation, is helmed by a sort of male Oprah, Caesar Flickerman, played to perfection by America’s best living character actor, Stanley Tucci. His bravura turn puts a smile on the viewer’s face, albeit a slightly crooked one.

The action-adventure stuff—a cross between Fenimore Cooper woodcraft and Arthur C. Clarke technology—thrills. Cinematographer Tom Stern gives us a forest that is both lovely and menacing, and Ross’s treatment of violence steers a tactful course between euphemism and sadism—no Peckinpah voluptuousness, yet the sight of the corpses strewn about after the initial slaughter is shocking enough.

As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence (so good in Winter’s Bone) goes beyond the easy job of getting our sympathy and draws us into the girl’s bitterness, confusion, and determination to hang onto some vestige of her humanity. Lawrence, who was coached by an Olympic archer, looks truly adept with a bow and arrow, an important detail in a film like this. As Peeta, the boy who arouses first her pity and then her desire, Josh Hutcherson seems appropriately vulnerable but keeps us guessing about his real feelings for Katniss. Best of all is Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, a former Games champ now sodden with drink and self-disgust. Harrelson pulls off a successful balancing act of warmth and astringency as his cynical character, the heroine’s coach, discovers within himself a spark of decency.

Yet there remains something morally dubious about The Hunger Games, something related to an artistic and psychological slackness in the film. Katniss enters the games out of love for her sister, but she’s open-eyed about what she’s getting into: it’s kill or be killed, and she’s ready. Yet script and staging cosset this killer-to-be. Before the hunt commences, several youths form an alliance to kill the others, thus edging the story into Lord of the Flies territory. Since everyone in this clique is downright sadistic, we don’t care how many of them our heroine might kill. In fact, such is our sympathy and fear for her, we want her to kill as many of them as possible. A well-justified bloodthirstiness has always been a big selling point of action-adventure movies, but is out of place in this movie.

Mid-hunt, Katniss teams up with an adorable little girl who doesn’t look older than nine, though the contestants are supposed to be at least twelve. The girl brings out the motherliness in our heroine, thereby making her more sympathetic than ever. But if all the other contestants were slain, wouldn’t Katniss have to off the tyke? Does she face this question in her thoughts? Not in the movie. Likewise, what will Katniss and Peeta do if they’re the two last survivors? For a while, the script puts the question on ice by having the administration declare midway through that two winners will be allowed, rather than just one. True, there’s a plot twist in the penultimate scene that forces both lovers to make a significant choice, but this doesn’t quite remove the taint of manipulation from much of the film’s second half. The director seems to have his eye on our sentimental responses rather than on what the truth of each situation demands.

There is an honor roll of American movies that have won a mass audience and classic status without resorting to manipulative narrative twists. That list might include The Gold Rush, Chinatown, the first and second Godfather films, The Lord of the Rings, Groundhog Day, Unforgiven, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and many screwball comedies. But there is another list, just as long, of movies that are notable for mixing shrewd movie-making with dishonesty. The lack of honesty in these quasi-classics may even have helped their popularity by sparking heated discussions and second visits to the box office. On the second list would appear The Graduate (a superb first half followed by youth-flattering phoniness), The Apartment (corrosive satire betrayed by the director’s decision to make the hero lovable), Bonnie and Clyde (great editing, dime-store psychology), Easy Rider (and just how did you “blow it,” Peter?), Platoon (excellent realism, warmed-over Nietzsche), and Zabriskie Point (a great European director salivating over hippies). Add The Hunger Games to this list.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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