In an era when current sci-fi projects vacillate between the beloved Star Trek remakes and the laughable “space jail” adventure Lockout, Lionsgate and Gary Ross have brought us a fascinating piece of speculative fiction that is an utterly disturbing commentary on human evolution and survival. The Hunger Games is not the next Twilight; if anything, it brings to mind the last two Harry Potter films, but even then, it stands alone as a parable about war as entertainment.
In the four years since Suzanne Collins’ novel was published, fans have hatched theories about the Capitol and what led Panem to institute this annual deathmatch pitting its young citizens against one another. We’ve probed the physical and figurative borders of the twelve districts and pondered Katniss as a romantic heroine and a mentally ill antihero. This film will only further that conversation, with undoubtedly thoughtful meditations on the characters, customs, and conflicts of the trilogy.
Despite any fears from fans about inaccurate castings, not a single member of this ensemble stumbles. Believe it or not, Jennifer Lawrence, relatable and humble on the red carpet, has Katniss’ essential unlikeability down. She plays the character as fiercely self-sufficient, the quintessential fish out of water raging at her unfamiliar surroundings. However, the best performance is Josh Hutcherson’s nuanced portrayal of Peeta: Understated and sensitive, painfully aware of how disadvantaged he is in the Games. Unlike Katniss, who is basically the best candidate that District 12 could offer, Peeta knows that the odds will never be in his favor. The film accurately handles each character’s brief elation at making the Capitol citizens laugh or coo over their stories, only to have those hopes dashed when they witness a rival tribute playing those same heartstrings.
Woody Harrelson manages to make an old drunkard a commanding presence, and he meshes well with uber-proper Effie in an odd-couple partnership we’re excited to see develop in the coming films. Elizabeth Banks was our first peek into Capitol fashion and etiquette, and though she has only a few moments that weren’t already revealed in the trailers or the Capitol Couture site, she is nonetheless radiant as a woman who has drunk the Capitol Kool-Aid.
The decision to cast unknowns or early-career actors as the other tributes was smart, as it lends a meta dimension to these secondary characters: They’re young professionals who’ve had only brushes with fame, now living out that much-scrutinized role. Some of them have agendas, like the sexual Glimmer or the muscled Cato, but not a one of them knows how to handle this situation.
I’ve heard fans say that the movie has a ’70s sci-fi vibe, but considering my limited experience in that genre beyond the early Star Wars movies, I’m going to put forward another possible science fiction influence: Joss Whedon’s Firefly. James Newton Howard’s score evokes the space opera with its simple strains, soaring against the bleakness of District 12 and almost brittle as they clashes with the Capitol, a city so shiny it almost hurts to look at.
Director Gary Ross’ greatest achievement in this adaptation is to uncover the inner workings of the Capitol and the Games itself. It’s a scare tactic but also a thriving business that employs many a morally ambiguous citizen. The “game room” is a fantastically unique touch: Bringing to mind the war room from the Star Wars space battles, we watch Seneca Crane take up the same post that Admiral Ackbar once held, as dedicated to sabotaging Katniss with fire and muttations as the Mon Calamari was to destroying the Death Star.
The mechanics of the Games are not lost on Katniss, who gazes up into the digital grid of the Arena sky from her perch in the trees at night. (I was surprised that the producers decided to make the Arena so obviously fabricated, when that realization plays a major part in the second book, Catching Fire.) I won’t give too much away about the Games themselves; just as the trailers showed us very little of the fighting, I want you to enter the deathmatch with as few expectations as the tributes themselves.
When we’re not following Katniss through the Arena, we’re also privy to other strategizing: President Snow uttering quiet threats to smother hope in the districts as he tends to his rose garden, and Haymitch threading his way through Capitol society to garner sponsors for his stubborn charge. His ability to move between social groups belies his earlier drunken ineptitude. Then there’s Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), bringing to mind Today show commentators at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as he dissects the Games from the comfort of his studio, making sure that the millions of viewers don’t miss one second of the Katniss/Peeta love story or the Survivor-style alliances.
The Hunger Games represents an unprecedented effort on the part of producers and the studio to interact with the fanbase and match their expectations and humor. The costume designers gave Wes Bentley a rocking beard—fans responded by creating a Facebook page dedicated to it—Bentley gave that fanpage a shout-out. You can see that interplay with the sly but subtle allusions to reality television mentioned above.
The tone firmly strikes a middle ground—never campy, but also not deathly serious. The movie could have benefitted from a little more humor, especially with Katniss and Peeta’s etiquette lessons with Effie, but there are still expressions and juxtapositions that made the audience laugh even with a language barrier. (I saw the movie in Paris.) At the same time, I was miffed to see that some of the book’s more disturbing details regarding the Games’ violence were omitted or glossed over as we crawled toward the ending. However, let me emphasize that this is the most faithful adaptation we could have, and it has much more depth than the similarly dedicated but critically panned Watchmen.
The truest indication of The Hunger Games‘ strength as a story is that it inspired Ross and his crew to bring it to life and incorporate their own interpretations of Collins’ world with confidence that fans would welcome this added dimension.
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter.