Gary Ross' movie version of The Hunger Games obeys the ironclad rule of transforming beloved fantasy fiction into a big-budget film franchise: Do not offend the fans.
Like the "Twilight" series, and many of the "Harry Potter" pictures, this is a dutiful adaptation of an imaginative, evocative page-turner; it renders the most vivid passages of Suzanne Collins' bestselling novel -- for instance, the attack of the "tracker jackers," a group of deadly wasps -- exactly as you might picture the scenes while reading them.
Yet Ross (who previously directed Seabiscuit) serves up images that feel recycled from familiar pop ephemera like Logan's Run, The Fifth Element or David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase, and the screenplay (which Ross co-wrote with Collins and Billy Ray) ultimately pulls too many punches, softening the novel's core of bitterness and nihilism. The result is well-made and absorbing, but never especially exciting -- the movie ends up denying the potential of its source material.
Collins' novel, published in 2008 and the first in a trilogy that also includes Catching Fire and Mockingjay, takes place in a nightmarish future, where North America has become a country called Panem, comprising 12 districts of varying degrees of economic prosperity. In order to remind the populace of its debt to the government, Panem's leaders insist on an annual ritual, broadcast across the nation, called the Hunger Games. Twenty-four teenagers, a boy and a girl from each of the districts, are chosen to compete in this Survivor-style fight to the death.
It doesn't take much effort to see Collins' novel -- set mostly in a capital city populated by wealthy elites who sip brightly hued cocktails and watch teenagers stab, maim and impale one another -- as a screed against the 1 percent. As the story unfolds, the leaders keep changing the rules of the Games to eke out higher ratings and to suppress possible rebellion among angry viewers. In a slightly more familiar vein, the novel also functions as a bitter satire of a society that has so completely lost its moral compass that anything suffices as entertainment.
Some of this cultural critique comes through in Ross' movie version but hardly enough; the filmmakers spend so much time setting the plot into motion that the larger themes and emotions get short shrift. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone) is a 16-year-old girl living in the impoverished District 12, who volunteers for the Games in order to take the place of her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), whose name is initially drawn for the task. Katniss' sort-of boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) doesn't want to see her go, especially not with her male counterpart in the Games, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the strong, stoic son of a baker.
During the draggy first hour of the film, Katniss and Peeta travel to the capital, as the movie introduces us to their handlers (Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz), their fellow "tributes" competing in the Games, the blue-wigged Master of Ceremonies (Stanley Tucci), the overly manscaped producer (Wes Bentley), the terse president of Panem (Donald Sutherland) and other assorted oddballs. We meet so many people, in fact, that no one effectively emerges as a compelling villain. Nor does the romantic tension between Katniss and Peeta, which should be the crux of the story, ever fully flower.
Once the actual Hunger Games begin, the kids are trapped in a computer-controlled, artificial forest beset with deadly booby traps, and from which only one survivor can emerge. Collins' novel ultimately fell into a trap that virtually every satire of violence falls into, with the author wringing her hands over our collective bloodlust even as she indulges in it at every turn. Yet I'd take that approach over the fundamentally toothless mayhem that Ross serves up here. Limbs break, but from a polite distance; knives plunge into flesh, but we only see a small measure of blood. Most dismayingly, the single most disturbing detail of the book, a horrifying bit of genetic engineering that lays bare the depths of this future-world's depravity, has been quietly excised from the film. This Hunger Games is a vision of dystopia that's ultimately afraid of giving its young viewers nightmares.
That the movie remains watchable is a credit to Collins' clever conceit, which neatly jumbles together ancient Roman gladiator contests, Lord of the Flies, the Richard Bachman/Stephen King novella The Running Man and modern reality TV. Props, too, to Lawrence, whose mixture of unfussy physicality and soft-spoken rage give the movie the backbone it's otherwise lacking. She acts circles around Hutcherson and Hemsworth, and steadily hints at something forward-thinking and exciting: a teenage franchise heroine whom the boys can't possibly keep up with.
It's just enough to make you curious for the inevitable, and hopefully less polite, sequel.