The politics of THE HUNGER GAMES, based on the hugely popular novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins, are never far from the action. Yet the premise, a futuristic yet oddly familiar society operating after the collapse of the United States, one that keeps its poor and downtrodden firmly under heel by turning them against one another, is handled with an intelligent dexterity that never sacrifices being human for mere dialectics. Being human is the whole point.
In that oddly familiar future society, twelve districts continue to pay the price of rebellion against the Capitol almost a century previously. That price is tribute in the form of one girl and one boy from each district, each between the ages of 12 and 18, who are annually chosen by lot to compete in the eponymous games. Twenty-four contestants in the bloom of youth tasked with killing each other until only one is left. The districts, backwaters of poverty, acquiesce meekly, carefully quelling visible emotion as they send their young off to die as a ratings draw for the rich and powerful Capitol dwellers. It is the fabric of society, as Seneca, Master of the Games (Wes Bentley) tells the spangle-suited Master of Ceremonies (Stanley Tucci) in the mock earnestness of ratings whore with no soul during a broadcast leading up to the games. And so it is, but for reasons more subtle than having all eyes on their television sets during the competition, and when the President (Donald Sutherland) explains the real reason to the Seneca when things start to go wrong, the real stakes become clear, and consequences more dire for everyone.
This is were Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) comes in. When her 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) is chosen as tribute, Katniss, volunteers to go in her place. Its a bold and desperate move from a determined and courageous girl, but it also injects something completely new into the equation. Its a small but potent bit of protest that until then had been unthinkable. That Katniss is an expert archer familiar with living in the wild gives her and her family hope that she might survive. That her assigned mentor (Woody Harelson), a former victor, is an addled drunken mess, does not.
Adapting the dense story of the book by allowing the audience to experience it from Katniss point of view is a tidy device. There are few moments when she is not on screen, allowing the stark differences in her Appalachian-like poverty and self-reliance, and the frivolous luxury of the capitol and its folk to sink in. It starts with the ruffled fuchsia nightmare of her handler (Elizabeth Banks) sporting several layers too many of pancake makeup and having conniption fits over lapses in etiquette while managing to say the wrong thing in the worst possible way with her brittle cheeriness intact. It continues through the endless sessions dedicated to polishing her grooming for television appearances designed to boost ratings, and the indifferent training designed to boost her appeal to the sponsors who could be the difference between life and death. The judicious use of flashbacks establishes Katniss complex relationship with her fellow tribute from District 12, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and the broken family she left behind and for whom she is determined to survive.
There is much spectacle here, as is fitting in telling the story of an empire in the middle stages of decadence, and the familiar tropes of that nascent decline are startling and designed to be. The ongoing television coverage of the games includes the cheery and glib Master of Ceremonies bantering with kids who are about to die that bears a resemblance to the sort of banter used with game show contestants, while the ongoing commentary by him and Seneca is all but indistinguishable from that of sporting events where the stakes are big money and bigger ratings. The audience for this is shown in its vapid glory, unaware or uncaring that the game is manipulated for their delight as they watch, an audience whose deepest thoughts are spend on planning the complicated arrangements of hair and even more complicated arrangements of clothing that they sport as they giggle or look bored as blood is spilled. Until that startling, pivotal moment in the games when a kill stops being a way to keep score and becomes the end of a human life.
If a film ever depended on its star to make it work, it is this one. Lawrence triumphs. She is smart enough to show the audience that even though Katniss is tough-minded, quick-witted, and resilient, she is also scared, but resolutely unwilling to give into the fear. This is a quietly powerful performance that keeps the story a very human one from beginning to end, and makes the sentiment to which Katniss is prone as integral as the action. She also gets a boost from the script in that Katniss is also resolutely unwilling to kill except in a directly life-or death situation, which avoids what could have been a thorny issue of retaining ones humanity while preserving ones life. Still, there is nothing to suggest that Lawrence couldnt have found to way to make that work, too.
THE HUNGER GAMES clocks in at almost two-and-a-half hours and never overstays its welcome. It is the shock of recognition coupled with a plot that constantly engages, and even surprises from time to time, that propels an intriguing premise both dynamically and sensitively realized.