Odds are, by the time you read this, you’ll already have seen it. Possibly more than once. So let’s discuss. How about those Hunger Games, huh? Speaking of odds, let’s speak of odds, as they often do in “The Hunger Games.” “May the odds be ever in your favor,” they say. Of course, if you’re playing, the odds are never in your favor. They’re at least 23 to 1 that you’ll die. Murder, starvation, exposure — options do abound; it’s just that none of them actually are favorable. The only way to win is to live. And to be sure nobody else does.
But you knew this. You knew this is what happens when pairs of adolescents from a dozen districts of some future former America annually are chosen by lottery for a woodsy death match on live TV, as has been going on for nearly three quarters of a century now. You knew because you’ve read the first book of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young adult sci-fi trilogy, and you’ve readied yourself for the movie.
The best part of which is Jennifer Lawrence as its heroine, a coal miner’s daughter from District 12, where the fashion tends toward migrant-mother chic and folks glumly congregate like movie Jews en route to concentration camps — setting them starkly apart from those foppish capital-city richies who sanction the mandatory bloodsport (and, what’s more insidious, the mandatory viewing thereof) as some twisted pillar of a decadent glam couture. Boilerplate dystopia plot aside — and the script, by Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross, has its own battles to fight against pseudo-suspense and other bloating filler — the least guilty pleasure of “The Hunger Games” is seeing Lawrence go so agilely through a progress of contexts in which she stands out.
Here, given her character’s particulars — variously absent parents, little sister to look after, brutal quest to endure, woods — you may even have noticed with a peculiar frisson that what you’re watching is basically “Winter’s Bone” reconfigured as an overproduced blockbuster. Still it’s a great relief to find Lawrence not playing just another scantily clad ass-kicker, nor a wispy nonentity torn between mythical monster men. (Although yes, she is quite the archer, and yes, a love triangle does take shape, with Josh Hutcherson as her closest opponent and Liam Hemsworth as her brooding back-home pal). Contrasting peripheral not-quite-characters played with brightly costumed monotony by Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, and Donald Sutherland, Lawrence brings a steady presence and enough unabashed vulnerability to plausibly survive the flamboyant savagery at hand. This is partly a parable of show business, after all.
Reportedly inspired by Collins’ experience of flipping channels between war coverage and reality TV, it all seems appropriately more mind-numbing than groundbreaking or actively satirical. And there’s an unfortunate sense of money having been siphoned from the special-effects budget into the marketing budget. But fair enough: As you certainly know, it is important for young people to be made aware of the pop-cultural touchstones about which it is their birthright to feel possessive. Daunted neither by its provenance in Collins’ beloved books nor by the precedents of its many similar on-screen ancestors, the movie of “The Hunger Games” defies the odds by not bothering itself about them. And isn’t that just the sort of fighting spirit you like to see?