Dir. Gary Ross
(2012, PG-13, 142 minutes)

How many movies about the systematic murder of children can you think of that are rated PG-13? Now I can name one. The Hunger Games is about a dystopian future where, after an unexplained rebellion, 12 impoverished districts are each forced to send two 12-to-18-year-old “tributes” into a televised death match. When her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is chosen by lottery, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in her place to represent district 12.

There are several elements of social, political, and cultural allegory at play here, swirled together in a cautionary-tale stew. There’s a touch of the Holocaust (the districts are ruled by the “Capitol,” which gather the children into camps to decide who will be sent to die), a dash of economic inequality (the rabble are forced to battle for survival, while the 1% live in decadence), and more than a little mass media criticism (the death matches, called the Hunger Games, are broadcast and promoted on television). The film has a little to say about everything and doesn’t settle on any one particular theme.

What kind of society would send its young people to die? The real question the film seems to be asking is whether our society is closer than we might think to staging such deadly distractions from our prevailing social problems. The film’s biggest failing is that it plays into the same death-for-sport escapism it’s supposed to be criticizing; it cheats its way out of its moral implications.

Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta

We identify with Katniss, and with her fellow district-12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), but in rooting for them we face the problem of then having to root for the deaths of their 22 child competitors. All of them are victims of the Capitol, and are then forced to victimize each other in order to survive. How can we, the audience for the film, stomach such a scenario?

Screenwriters Suzanne Collins (who also wrote the novels on which the film is based), Billy Ray, and Gary Ross (who also directs) make it easy for us. They simply establish some meaner, older tributes we can allow ourselves too root against. As the bodies pile up the audience can feel absolved, because the nice kids are killed by the evil kids, and if the evil kids are then killed by Katniss, it’s okay because those particular 12-to-18-year-olds … had it coming?

And what about Katniss and Peeta? Even if they survive all others, won’t they have to face each other? Don’t worry, the film finds a way around that one too.

The film’s moral whitewash was probably inevitable. It’s based on young-adult novels and geared to the same demographic. As a result, the subject matter is far darker than its treatment would ever have been allowed to be, but that actually makes it worse, because it purports to condemn its bloodsport while at the same time sanitizing it for our viewing pleasure.

To see a playing-for-keeps variation on the same theme, seek out Series 7: The Contenders, a very good and very disturbing film from 2001 in which contestants are chosen for a reality show and must murder each other until one “winner” remains. That film, rated R, didn’t shy away from its topic.

There are also shades of The Truman Show, which was also about a manufactured TV-world manipulated by a godlike mastermind, but that film had more insight into the evolution of media and human nature on both sides of the camera.

The Hunger Games deals with fascinating subjects, but it doesn’t have sharp enough teeth for them. It’s well-acted by its cast, which also includes Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland as purveyors of the titular competition. The production values are excellent, including vivid production design by Philip Messina. This is a well-crafted entertainment, but a film with such subject matter should temper its entertainment with a tougher, more honest perspective on how it’s entertaining us.