No wonder that the movie version of the surpassingly strange young-adult novel The Hunger Games is an enormous hit and bids fair to become the most important cultural phenomenon of 2012. The thing is gripping as hell, with a profoundly intense central performance by Jennifer Lawrence that has the concentrated power of Al Pacino’s rendering of Michael Corleone in the first Godfather. Gary Ross, the director and cowriter, has succeeded at a fiendishly difficult task: telling the story in a way that would make it possible for us to watch it at all. Because if it had been filmed exactly as the novel is written, even the lurid folk who make intentionally disgusting movies like The Human Centipede and Saw would be hiding their eyes and shivering and vomiting and sobbing for their mothers.
Suzanne Collins, who wrote the 2008 novel and its two even more gobsmacking sequels, did something no one has ever done before. She wrote a Grand Guignol for girls, a graphic nightmare vision of a hyperviolent world in which the favored class of adults in a totalitarian society gamble frenziedly over the lives of children whom they assign the task of slaughtering each other. And we see it not through the eyes of an adolescent boy, as we would ordinarily expect in science-fiction dystopias of this kind, but rather through the eyes of an uncertain and desperately brave teenage girl.
Her name is Katniss Everdeen, and she is among the surviving remnant on a North American continent after a series of disasters destroyed civilization. The former America has been divided into 12 districts and a capital city. Seventy-four years before the action begins, there was a failed revolt against the Capitol, and to keep the population in line, the Capitol forces each of the districts to supply two children between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in a gladiatorial contest. The contestants are fed well (for the first time in their lives), primped, beautified, turned into television stars—and then set instantly against each other in a literal fight to the death.
Collins combines a poignant depiction of the confused perspective of a classic sullen mixed-up teen forced by life to grow up too fast with an imaginative and cinematic pastiche of The Most Dangerous Game, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, and the Greek myth of Theseus in the Minotaur’s maze—only with Katniss in the role of Theseus. But this Theseus must do more than kill; she must also win over the audience so she can receive special goodies during the games that will keep her alive.
And to do that, she must pose as the crazy-in-love girlfriend of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy from her district who accompanied her to the games. But Peeta is someone who might have to kill her, or whom she might have to kill. And what about the boy back home, the one with whom she learned to hunt and whose skills in the forest helped her find enough food to keep her family alive?
It’s not just the other kids Katniss has to watch out for. The designers of the “Hunger Games,” like the designers of reality shows, like to mix it up, which means placing genetically modified bees with hallucinogenic venom and mutant dogs and forest fires in her path. And they sting. And they bite. And they burn. And when the killing commences, kids are run through with spears, smashed against rocks, eaten alive.
This duality—the believable portrait of confused teenage everygirl torn between two boys who is forced to do whatever she must to keep herself alive at 23-1 odds—accounts for both the originality and the wild popularity of the novels.
Summarizing The Hunger Games can’t get at why the book is an instant pulp classic and why the movie, which is as faithful as it can be, is likely to be one as well. Metaphorically, The Hunger Games is a depiction of an adolescent’s extreme horror and anxiety at facing a world she does not understand and whose rules she has to learn as she goes or else find herself emotionally obliterated. On the page, we have Katniss’s voice, alternately strong and confused. On screen, we have its equivalent in Jennifer Lawrence’s face and voice and alternately graceful and gangly frame. She completely inhabits Katniss’s spirit and gives one of those career-defining performances that almost ensures we will be watching this 21-year-old for many decades to come.
Gary Ross, who made the turgid Seabiscuit and the obvious Pleasantville, had to figure out how to convey the horror of the games, including the child-on-child killings, without making it so indescribably violent that no fan of the book could ever see it. He did so by using a handheld camera much of the time, with fast cutting and dark lighting, which is usually a maddening style of action filmmaking, but here seems to provide just as much information as we need to get the point without lingering over it.
He is going to have an even greater challenge filming the two later books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, in which the violence becomes worse and the crushing emotional demands on Katniss begin to take a toll on her spirit and psyche. I don’t know that these books or the movie that springs from them are morally defensible, really—they glory in the violence they view with horror—but my oh my, they sure do get under your skin and into your head.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.