Set in an unspecified, postapocalyptic future, The Hunger Games takes place in Panem, a nation constructed out of the ruins of North America and consisting of twelve mostly impoverished districts and the prosperous Capitol. As punishment for an earlier uprising — and as a reminder of its complete control over its citizens — the Capitol demands that one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each district be selected via annual lottery to participate in the Hunger Games. Now in its 74th edition, this televised pageant of nonstop gore (and mandatory viewing) documents the 24 randomly drawn teenagers killing each other until only one remains.
This year's female "tribute" from District 12 — one of Panem's most destitute regions, a coal-mining center located in the former Appalachia — is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a flinty sixteen-year-old who volunteers for the slaughter so that her beloved fragile younger sister, whose name has just been called, will be spared. Two years ago, Lawrence played a similar character in the present-day, Ozarks-set Winter's Bone: the unyielding survivalist roasting squirrels over a spit, forced at too young an age to become a caretaker and fighting off many who would like to see her dead. The earlier association enhances Lawrence's role here; she has a gift for exuding iron determination and dead-eyed exhaustion.
Other cultural referents don't work as well. When Katniss and her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), travel to the Oz-like Capitol, the city's opulence and depravity are conveyed via male citizens who look like members of the Lollipop Guild as styled by SNL's Stefon. Decadence is coded as unmistakably gay among the men in Capitol crowd scenes and the primpers who prepare Katniss for her pre–Hunger Games, American Idol–style interviews. (Katniss' chief stylist, Cinna, played by an excellent Lenny Kravitz, is more ambiguously metrosexual.)
For the film's most difficult visual challenge — depicting the violence of the source so that it is neither cynically glamorized nor too brutal to preclude pubescents from buying tickets — Ross, who directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, and cinematographer Tom Stern smartly deploy rapid cuts and quick shots of the aftermath of the kid-on-kid savagery. A palm-size pool of blood, a vacant stare, a body going limp all effectively communicate the horrors of what just happened with sufficient impact. Like the pacing of the novel, the film, even at almost two and a half hours, moves briskly, continuously drawing us in.
And yet, at the risk of indulging in tired, pointless debates about page versus screen, it is impossible for this movie to ever hope to match the fury of the book. Collins is no great prose stylist, but through her very premise, she astringently articulates her anger at a culture — ours — indifferent to inequity and war and besotted with its own stupidity. But the book's rage and despair are diluted here, focusing too much on the high-tech gimmickry of the Gamemakers, who arbitrarily insert obstacles — fire, mutant dogs — that further imperil the tributes. Although the novel might make concessions to the conventions of young-adult lit, Collins' heroine is, in one of the source material's most gripping sections, perilously close to dying from dehydration. That slow, awful process is not dramatized onscreen: To do so would require an investment in a deeper, more existential and lonely terror that Ross' movie refuses to broach.