Adapting a novel for the screen must feel like playing Pick Up Sticks. With steady hands, the filmmakers carefully excise certain bits, while leaving others untouched and in their proper place. It’s a game of audacious gambles and strong nerves.
Deft hands were at work on The Hunger Games, the frothingly anticipated adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ science-fiction novel of the same name. Collins’ book was a provocative idea, thinly realized. The movie pares away what was unfortunate or unnecessary – the clumsy humor, the awkward lovey-dovishness – and emphasizes the grimness of the tale. We’re left with a disturbing dose of sci-fi doom.
Set in a future dystopia, The Hunger Games follows the travails of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a teen girl who is being forced to participate in an annual, gladiator-style contest against other youth. Transported to a forested battleground with 23 others – including a boy (Josh Hutcherson) from her district who has a crush on her – Katniss is forced to fight to the death. The “games” don’t end until only one of these kids is left alive.
Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), who wrote the screenplay with Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), improves upon the book from the very start, where Katniss’ home district is given a palpable squalor that the novel never evoked. Ratty laundry is being hung on a line; boys play in a muddy drainage ditch; an old man gnaws on a greasy bone. It’s like the future version of the desperate backwoods terrain Lawrence traveled in her breakout film, Winter’s Bone.
Indeed, this is Lawrence’s best performance since Winter’s Bone, in which she played the older sister in a fatherless family who is facing eviction from their dilapidated rural home. There and here, the narrative plays to Lawrence’s strength: a sullen sort of integrity. Once again, she is a young woman who is forced to step outside of the usual age and gender roles in order to protect a family that is at the mercy of a cruel and vindictive social system. That’s a formidable challenge, and Lawrence creates a character who is more than up to it.
As a piece of speculative science fiction – rather than a documentary-like slice of contemporary life – The Hunger Games resonates less deeply than Winter’s Bone. But there is some allegorical potency at work here, especially as an installment in the mini-genre that could be termed “reality TV gone wild” (The Condemned and Death Race would be other recent examples). The games, you see, are broadcast throughout all of the districts; every detail – the gory combat, the tearful tending of wounds – is captured by hidden cameras. In the wake of “Survivor” – as we wade among television shows such as “Fear Factor” and “Wipeout” – The Hunger Games wonders how far our culture’s intertwined obsessions with voyeurism and televised exhibitionism might take us. Will we someday be willing to sacrifice our kids for the sake of entertainment? If you consider shows such as “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” have we already done it?
There is another element in The Hunger Games that Ross and Lawrence handle quite well: the gender factor. Katniss is constantly being forced into stereotypical gender roles by others, roles she continually resists. Quite comfortable as the hunter and provider for her family in the wake of her father’s death, she grimaces at her mother’s suggestion, early on, that she wear a dress. Similarly, in preparation for the lavish ceremonies that lead up to the game itself, hair and makeup artists descend on Katniss and attempt to add glam. (Only Cinna, the stylist played by Lenny Kravitz, bothers to devise a look that matches her inner fire.)
Ironically, it’s not until the games themselves that Katniss is able to look and feel like her true self: a hunter – no, a killer – in a sensible jacket and sturdy boots. What this means for her future is something I’m eager to learn.