Click on the audio player below to listen to Slate's Spoiler Special podcast on The Hunger Games after you've seen the movie.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ monster young-adult bestseller about a futuristic dystopia in which teenagers battle to the death in televised gladiatorial matches, is a one-sitting read, the kind of flawlessly executed genre novel that makes all your other plans for the day suddenly recede into insignificance. Unlike the swoony, rambling prose of some other bestselling YA novelists I could name, Collins’ writing is vividly cinematic, with evocative sensory descriptions and tight cliffhanger pacing. The bidding war for the film rights to The Hunger Games (and the two other books in Collins’ sci-fi trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay) must have rivaled the Games of the book for sheer winner-take-all bloodlust.
Whether The Hunger Games movie (Lionsgate Films) was any good or not, it would have had an eager fan base pounding at the theater door—not least because, with the Harry Potter series just over and the Twilight one winding down, tweens worldwide are in need of a new collective fantasy to obsess over. (Lest that sound snide, let me note that providing collective fantasies to obsess over strikes me as one legitimate and important function of popular cinema, especially for young people.) If you’ve been trying to ignore all the Hunger Games hype in the hopes the whole phenomenon would just fade quietly away, I have some advice for you: Give in. Read the book and watch the movie, in that order, because they’re going to be part of the conversation for a while and it’s more fun experiencing them than dismissing them. Director Gary Ross' adaptation, co-scripted by Collins herself, isn’t quite as crackingly paced as the novel, but it will more than satisfy existing fans of the trilogy and likely create many new ones.
The key to making this adaptation work was the casting of Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old Games participant and wild-game huntress who narrates the novel and appears in virtually every scene of both book and movie. Katniss is an unusual heroine for a story of this type: stolid, wary, a little dour, and resolutely un-boy-crazy. The role demands a young lady of substance, someone who’s beautiful without being girly-girl pretty and athletic without being gym-bunny buff. The film’s producers nailed it in picking Jennifer Lawrence, who’s appeared memorably in X-Men: First Class and The Beaver since her career-making performance in the bleak Ozark fairy tale Winter’s Bone (2010.) The Hunger Games is pretty solidly cast from top to bottom, but it’s Lawrence who carries the whole film on her sturdy shoulders. She’s a first-rate actress who, with this role, officially accedes to the status of movie star. I hope she’s ready.
One of Suzanne Collins’ great strengths as an author is her gift for swift, economical world-building, a skill that this plot summary is about to test me on: It’s an unspecified year in the future. What was once North America has become a totalitarian nation called Panem. The country’s seat of power is the wealthy, decadent Capitol, while the rest of the nation is divided into 12 districts where the citizens struggle to feed themselves. The social order in Panem is uneasily maintained through brute force, constant surveillance, and a barbaric sacrifice ritual known as the Reaping.
Every year, each of the districts chooses one boy and one girl “tribute” by lottery and offers the two adolescents up for participation in the nationally televised Hunger Games. After being groomed and paraded before screaming audiences in the Capitol, the tributes are trained in survival skills, then released into a forest, where they will fight over scarce resources—water, food, weapons—and hunt one another until only one is left standing. Cameras are hidden throughout the gaming grounds so that the whole gruesome proceedings can be watched by a rubbernecking nation; it's a Real World-style reality show via “The Most Dangerous Game.”
When her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), has her name called at the Reaping, Katniss volunteers to go to the Games in her place. The male tribute from her district, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has had a crush on her since childhood—unless, as Katniss suspects, that’s just a ruse designed to win favor from spectators of the Games. For her part, Katniss may or may not harbor unchaste feelings toward Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her hunky game-hunting companion back in District 12.
After their selection, Katniss and Peeta are whisked off to the luxurious, sinister Capitol, where monumental Fascist architecture coexists alongside candy-colored extreme fashion. The master of ceremonies for the televised games, played with grotesque verve by Stanley Tucci, wears a magnificent bright-blue bouffant gathered into a bun. (The costumes, makeup, and production design for the Capitol are among the movie’s chief pleasures, though I missed the books’ love for lingering on sumptuous banquets.)
Accompanying them are Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) a former Games champion from their district who’s now a bitter alcoholic, and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a blithering pink-wigged hypocrite whose job it is to remain determinedly chirpy as she shepherds these two young people to their near-inevitable slaughter.
I won’t give away what happens once the Games begin—all you need to know is that the PG-13-rated violence, while intense, is neither explicit nor sadistically lingered over. There are some hard-to-watch child deaths—it is, after all, a film about children fighting to the death—but the scenes they occur in are hard to watch because of their emotional and moral heft, rather than because of their “dude, that’s harsh” factor (though that one kid who gets stung by genetically engineered super-wasps … dude, that’s harsh.) This is a violent mass entertainment that critiques violent mass entertainments by extrapolating the logic of reality TV to a place of absurdity.
The Hunger Games isn’t perfect. The character of Gale, an important moral voice in the book, has been reduced to generic hunky dreamboat-dom (a development that’s not Liam Hemsworth’s fault; he simply hasn’t been given enough to do, other than stare besotted at TV screens on which Katniss is off doing something interesting). Woody Harrelson, a brilliant actor who’s been hitting his career peak in recent roles, seems somehow too sexy and suave for the role of Haymitch, even if the character has been cleaned up from the book (where he’s a perpetually low-functioning, malodorous drunk.)
Ross (who also co-wrote Big and directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) could have done more to shape The Hunger Games’ cliffhanger ending into something more narratively satisfying; as it is, the movie’s last minute might as well consist of a grip holding a placard that reads “Come back for Part 2.” But for this movie’s core audience, there’ll be no need to wait for the next movie before coming back. If you have a kid between the ages of 11 and 17—boy or girl, timid or bold, athletic or retiring—get ready to spend a fortune on repeat viewings, tie-in video games, and quite possibly archery lessons.
See all of Slate’s coverage of The Hunger Games here.