After the success of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, Hollywood studio executives have left no literary stone unturned, hoping to find the next great film franchise. Lionsgate hoped as much when it acquired the film rights to Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel, The Hunger Games three years ago.

A good idea given the novel’s subsequent success. Two other novels to round out a trilogy, translated into 26 languages, 38 countries, 20 million copies sold, etc.

Lionsgate’s risk-adverse approach is no more evident than the decision to give Gary Ross, a middle-brow, mainstream director who hasn’t made a film in nine years (Seabiscuit, another adaptation, was his last), the directing reins. Ross opens The Hunger Games with rolling, descriptive, white-on-black text filling us on the nature of the Hunger Games, then promptly re-explains the games through the eyes of the film’s garishly costumed, bewigged characters, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), a sleazy talk-show host, and Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), lead Gamemaker for the annual games of the title.

Crane solemnly extols the games’ nobler attributes and meaning for an appreciative audience in the opulent, decadent Capitol, the center of the post-Second Civil War North American country, Panem, and the less appreciative television audience from the surrounding twelve districts.

The Capitol’s political architects discovered an effective, efficient way to keep potentially rebellious districts in seemingly perpetual check: the annual games of the title, a next-gen reality show that mercilessly pits two “tributes”  from each district, one male and one female between the ages of 12-18, in a deadly tournament until only one tribute is left alive. For the victor, a life of ease and comfort supposedly awaits. The games serve as a yearly reminder of the Capitol’s power and monopoly on violence, an object lesson to the potentially rebellious districts of the fate that awaits them if they rebel against the Capitol, as the mythical District 13 did a quarter of a century earlier.

Ross finally segues to the Appalachia-based District 12 and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, almost as good here as in her Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone performance), The Hunger Games’ heroine-protagonist and an expert archer, takes a few moments before the annual tribute-selecting lottery, the “Reaping,” to go hunting with her best mate, Gale Hawthorne (an uncharismatic, bland Liam Hemsworth). Ross shoots District 12 with jittery, jerky, handheld cameras, constantly reframing shots of Katniss, her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), their unnamed mother (Paula Malcomson), Gale, and District 12′s other underfed, grimy residents. Ross presumably meant to create a contrast between the districts and the Capitol, but instead he ends up looking like a novice filmmaker, opting for what passed for edginess 15 years ago.

After Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a garishly dressed, over-made-up representative from the Capitol selects Prim, Katniss volunteers, the first ever from District 12. Trinket selects Peeta Mellark (a well-cast Josh Hutcherson) as District 12′s male tribute.

After an initial bloodless skirmish in the “arena,” a seemingly boundless forest, The Hunger Games retreats, like its heroine, into a reactive passivity that effectively undercuts the momentum created by the games’ first minutes, a net negative regardless of how closely it conforms to Collins’ novel.

Initially reluctant to engage the other contestants, she attempts to wait out them out. Peeta allies himself with other survivors out of instinct. Katniss eventually befriends Rue (Amandla Stenberg), one of the youngest tributes, an obvious stand-in for Prim, and thus an obvious sympathy magnet. Peeta, Katniss’ romantic interest (a subplot with third-act complications) disappears for long stretches of screen time, often leaving Hutcherson-as-Peeta with little to do except function as the male equivalent of a damsel in distress.

Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Collins and Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass), Ross alternates longueurs, including one drawn-out section set in a cave (longer, apparently in the novel), periodic, expository commentary from Flickerman and an equally slimy co-host, Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones), cutaways to under-rendered CG-scapes (specifically the Capitol and its environs), and the obligatory spasms of sporadic violence, presumably to hit the novel’s major and minor plot points to service fans, and set up the sequels, ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay.’ For better or, more likely, worse, Lionsgate has already decided to split the third and final book in Collins’ trilogy into two films, a choice determined by financial, not artistic, considerations.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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