"If no one watches, then they don't have a game," a teenager says in this faithful if cautious adaptation of the first volume of Suzanne Collins' astronomically successful dystopic YA trilogy. A withering indictment of omnipresent screens, endless spectacle, and debased celebrity culture, The Hunger Games was inspired, the author has said, by flipping the channels from a reality-TV show to footage of the Iraq war. Most of Collins' critique, then, is compromised by the very existence of this big-screen transfer, itself the most anticipated spectacle of the spring. (The novelist, who both co-wrote the script with director Gary Ross and Billy Ray and executive produced, is apparently fine with the contradiction.)
Set in an unspecified, postapocalyptic future, The Hunger Games takes place in Panem, a nation constructed out of the ruins of North America and consisting of 12 mostly impoverished districts and the prosperous Capitol. (For those unfamiliar with the book, this backstory is told quickly through opening intertitles.) As punishment for an earlier uprising — and as a reminder of its complete control over its citizens — the Capitol demands that one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district be selected via annual lottery to participate in the Hunger Games. Now in its 74th edition, this televised pageant of nonstop gore (and mandatory viewing) documents the 24 randomly drawn teenagers killing each other until only one remains.
This year's female "tribute" from District 12 — one of Panem's most destitute regions, a coal-mining center located in the former Appalachia — is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a flinty 16-year-old who volunteers for the slaughter so that her beloved fragile younger sister, whose name has just been called, will be spared. Two years ago, Lawrence played a similar character in the present-day, Ozarks-set Winter's Bone: the unyielding survivalist roasting squirrels over a spit, forced at too young an age to become a caretaker and fighting off many who would like to see her dead. The earlier association enhances Lawrence's role here; the actress, more solidly built than her wispy contemporaries, has a particular gift for exuding iron determination and dead-eyed exhaustion — like a junior version of one of Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mothers.
Other cultural referents don't work as well. When Katniss and her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), travel from their hardscrabble region to the gleaming, Oz-like Capitol, the city's opulence and depravity are conveyed via male citizens who look like members of the Lollipop Guild as styled by SNL's Stefon. Decadence is coded as unmistakably gay among the men in Capitol crowd scenes and the primpers who prepare Katniss for her pre-Hunger Games, American Idol-style interviews; these nellie Day-Glo steampunkers suggest that we can blame Project Runway for the end of civilization. (Katniss' chief stylist, Cinna, played by an excellent Lenny Kravitz, is more ambiguously metrosexual.) Other significant set pieces from Collins' novel look laughably pitiful when realized on-screen: The Cornucopia, the horn-shaped warehouse to which the tributes race at the beginning of the Games to pick up supplies, eliminating many competitors in the process, resembles a Frank Gehry-designed titanium turd.
For the film's most difficult visual challenge — depicting the unrelenting violence of the source so that it is neither cynically glamorized nor too brutal to preclude pubescents from buying tickets — Ross, who previously directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, and cinematographer Tom Stern smartly deploy rapid cuts and quick shots of the aftermath of the kid-on-kid savagery. A palm-size pool of blood, a vacant stare, a body going limp all effectively communicate the horrors of what just happened with sufficient impact. Like the pacing of the novel, the film, even at almost two and a half hours, moves briskly, continuously drawing us in.
And yet, at the risk of indulging in tired, pointless debates about page versus screen, it is impossible for this movie to ever hope to match the fury of the book. Collins is no great prose stylist, but through her very premise, she astringently articulates her anger at a culture — ours — indifferent to inequity and war and besotted with its own stupidity. (Horrifyingly, you have the sense while reading that these televised Survivor-style kiddy kills seem all too likely to be realized one day.)
But the book's rage and despair are diluted here, focusing too much on the high-tech gimmickry of the Gamemakers, who arbitrarily insert obstacles — fire, mutant dogs — that further imperil the tributes. Although the novel might make concessions to the conventions of young-adult lit — Katniss and Peeta form two points of a love triangle; the third is waiting for her back in District 12 — Collins' heroine is, in one of the source material's most gripping sections, perilously close to dying from dehydration. That slow, awful process is not dramatized on-screen: To do so would require an investment in a deeper, more existential and lonely terror that Ross' movie refuses to broach.