(Update: I see I somehow managed to post this review twice, more recently here. I'll leave both in place to avoid possible broken links.)
This is the first of a series of movies adapted from a popular trilogy of young adult science fiction novels by Suzanne Collins, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gary Ross and Billy Ray.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with her mother and little sister in a dystopian future version of the United States, now known as Panem (as in the Roman expressions panem et circenses—“bread and circuses”). District 12, where Katniss lives, seems a lot like 1930s Appalachia in terms of incomes and technology, both presumably limited by the central dictatorship as a means of control. Katniss hunts with a bow and arrow, selling what her family doesn’t eat, in order to supplement their rations and meagre income.
There was a rebellion seventy-some years before the start of the film, and ever since each district has been required to send an annual “tribute” in the form of a two teenagers, a boy and a girl, to take part in the Hunger Games, a multi-day televised fight to the death that ends with a single survivor. Each district’s tributes are chosen randomly (though some volunteer), and families earn extra rations by entering their children’s names into the lottery more than once. This is one reason Katniss hunts — to minimize the risk to herself and her sister of becoming a tribute.
Of course, Katniss becomes a tribute anyway, so it’s fortunate she’s a good archer. She and her male counterpart travel by luxurious bullet train to Panem’s capital city, which the tyrants insist on calling “the Capitol,” just daring you to say something about their spelling. In the Capitol the tributes are housed in luxurious quarters while undergoing training. Pretty much everything in the Capitol is luxurious, but to make up for it the residents are forced to dress like toy poodles.
Woody Harrelson is a hard-drinking former Hunger Games champion from District 12 whose job it is to mentor Katniss and her male counterpart. He’s not happy about it, probably from experience, given that District 12 rarely produces winners.
There’s not a lot of depth here, but there are some nice touches. Some tributes form temporary alliances and even friendships. Some are reluctant, some pretty much pure evil. The male tribute from her district claims to have long had a crush on her from afar, but she suspects he’s lying, and in any case the rules say that at most one of them can live (and she already has a boyfriend).
It’s not a great film but it’s not bad either, and in spots it’s emotionally affecting. Two sequels have been released with a final installment coming this year.