Every time I look away a new pop culture phenomenon passes by. I close my eyes and “Harry Potter” soars past, bend to tie my shoes and lo! “Twilight” appears, look back up and what do you know? There’s “The Hunger Games.”
Now Suzanne Collins’s popular book series joins its predecessors in reaching the big screen. It immediately trumps the “Twilight” films with a strong premise and female lead, but it never reaches “Harry Potter” landmark stature. It sits firmly in the middle: it won’t offend your sensibilities. It won’t impress them much either.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a dystopian, war-ravaged North America. A totalitarian government exercises control over the country’s 12 districts by selecting one boy and girl from each to compete in “The Hunger Games,” where children battle to the death or perish against the elements. It’s “Battle Royale” meets “Survivor”/”American Idol.” The contestants are paraded around like runway models, while the actual competition is televised live and uncensored.
Katniss is drawn into the fight when she offers herself in place of her younger sister. Together with well-meaning baker Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she leaves the coalmining District 12 to prepare for the games, assisted only by a bristly drunk (Woody Harrelson) and doting fashion designer (Lenny Kravitz). This isn’t so bad, it turns out: with a bow and arrow in her hand, Katniss has most everyone beat.
There’s no issue with the film’s premise: it’s patently ridiculous, but timely and deeply concerned with important topics: politics, violence and media. Jennifer Lawrence revives the authority and stubborn determination she exercised in “Winter’s Bone” to make Katniss a slow burn: quiet on the surface, sizzling underneath with wit and intelligence. She’s definitely no Bella Swan. There’s a love triangle, but the film wisely downplays it until the end.
Yet “The Hunger Games” leaves no lasting taste. All the nuance and details that colored the book disappear to fit the text into a two-hour running time: Katniss’s backstory, concerning her family and relation with Peeta, appears in flimsy, tacked-on flashbacks that illuminate nothing; the other child fighters are reduced to two-dimensional villains and faceless monsters; and, most egregiously, the “hunger” part of title is a nonfactor. We’re told more contestants die from starvation than murder, but each kid seems to get the food and water they need when they need it.
This is a literary adaptation in the strictest sense, stripped of the creative license necessary to making the jump from text to film. Sloppy filmmaking abounds — close-ups and shaky-cam present a muddled, claustrophobic vision. We never get a sense of a world, only brooding faces pressed against us. The film’s tone aims for Greek tragedy, but design choices undermine the effort. The government elite dress like extras from a Lady Gaga video shot in Whoville; their pink bouffants and rainbow gowns make the soaring choruses and brutal imagery of children snapping each other’s necks less shocking and more, well, inappropriate.
The narrative is inherently better than “Twilight,” yes, but this is no free pass for lousy film technique. To succeed, satire must hold a confident, consistent tone. “The Hunger Games” desperately needs the unifying touch of a Gilliam or Cuaron, someone who can play loose and still make poignant statements on humanity.
If you’ve read the books, you’ve probably already decided on whether or not to see “The Hunger Games.” For the rest of us, it’s a decent, though ultimately inadequate, look at America’s most recent cultural phenomenon.