Based on novelist Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular futuristic thriller for young adults, the film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” gets by chiefly on raw, sinister suspense.
For those who haven’t read the book — the first in a trilogy — it takes place during the 74th year of games that were established as a way to control the masses after an unsuccessful uprising.
A boy and a girl (“tributes”) chosen from each of 12 districts prepare for a battle from which just one person will emerge alive. The competition is broadcast and commented upon in hideous reality TV style.
From District 12, tough and cunning Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) — an expert archer — volunteers, taking the place of her younger sister.
Her companion Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) harbors a secret crush on her. Their toughest competitors are typical, cackling teen bullies.
Though created with the book’s many fans in mind, “The Hunger Games” doesn’t seem to have been made by anyone in particular.
Director (and co-writer) Gary Ross could have been chosen at random. Perhaps his most similar movie is “Pleasantville,” also set in a strange alternate world.
Ross and his fellow screenwriters, including Collins, appear uncertain about how much information to impart. For example, the movie initially makes a big deal out of the tributes finding “sponsors,” but drops the idea.
Likewise, potential romantic tension between three characters is snuffed, perhaps in anticipation of sequels. Meanwhile, Ross’ camera roams indecisively, rarely settling on anything.
But, happily, the movie is insidiously effective in capturing the anxious terror leading up to the games, and then the unleashed brutality of the competition — thanks to Lawrence’s mature performance.
Woody Harrelson, as an emotionally damaged former winner and current coach, also is good.
And the film’s superb, creepy design and costumes of bizarre colors make the future look dreadfully plastic and frilly.
Still, “The Hunger Games” misses opportunities eagerly taken by Kinji Fukasaku’s remarkably similar 2000 Japanese cult classic “Battle Royale.” Pure, giddy exploitation, it invited audiences to have a good time and unexpectedly discover the subtext that such games are bad.
Slowed down and dressed up, “The Hunger Games” offers the same message, but leaves the fun behind. To compensate, the focus is on suspense. Even the most stalwart viewers, prior fans or not, will be squirming in their seats.