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Tested by a Picturesque Dystopia



There’s a short anxious scene in the new film “The Hunger Games” when its 16-year-old heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), races through a deep, dark forest; falls down a hill; and rolls and rolls, only to rise up and thrust herself again into the unknown. Katniss, the lethally tough linchpin from Suzanne Collins’s trilogy and now a rather less imposing film heroine, is a teenage survivalist in a postapocalyptic take on a familiar American myth. When she runs through that forest, and even when she falls, there’s something of the American frontiersman in her, as if she were Natty Bumppo reborn and resexed.

For as long as this brief scene lasts, it seems possible that Gary Ross, the unlikely and at times frustratingly ill-matched director for this brutal, unnerving story, has caught the heart-skipping pulse of Michael Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans” if not that film’s ravishing technique and propulsive energy. Alas, Mr. Ross, the director of the genial entertainments “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” and whose script credits include “Big,” has a way of smoothing even modestly irregular edges. Katniss, who for years has bagged game to keep her family from starving, was created for rough stuff — for beating the odds and the state, for hunting squirrel and people both — far rougher than Mr. Ross often seems comfortable with, perhaps because of disposition, inclination or some behind-the-scenes executive mandate.

It may be that Mr. Ross is too nice a guy for a hard case like Katniss. A brilliant, possibly historic creation — stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation, armed with Diana’s bow and a ferocious will — Katniss is a new female warrior, and she keeps you watching even while you’re hoping for something better the next time around. (Mr. Ross is onboard to direct the follow-up, “Catching Fire.”) For some fans of the three novels, the screen version will inevitably be disappointing, especially for those keeping inventory of the details, characters, grim thoughts and cynicism that have gone missing. For others the image of a girl like Katniss taking up so much screen space with so few smiles may be enough to keep faith.

The screenplay by Mr. Ross, Ms. Collins and Billy Ray hews dutifully close to its source material, at least in wide strokes. Katniss lives in District 12 of Panem — as in panem et circenses, Latin for bread and circuses — a totalitarian state that has risen from the postwar ashes of North America. Every year a boy and a girl ages 12 to 18 are chosen from each Panem district to compete in the gladiatorial games of the title, a fight that owes something to that ancient Roman blood sport and something else to the Greek myth of the Minotaur, the part man, part bull that devoured Athenian youths given in tribute. The Minotaur is eventually slain, but that’s getting ahead of Katniss.

The film takes off at the selection ceremony, or reaping, a nationally televised event complete with armed soldiers and a bubbly bubblehead M.C. (Elizabeth Banks), during which Katniss’s younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), is chosen. Katniss quickly volunteers to take Prim’s place, becoming, with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), District 12’s tributes. The two are whisked off to the Capitol, where they’re plucked and primped by a team of gaudily hued stylists (overseen by a gilt-lidded Lenny Kravitz as Cinna), a potentially razor-sharp sequence that should underscore the Capitol’s decadence but here comes across as a variant on Dorothy’s cheery wash- and brush-up when she enters the Emerald City. Katniss may not be in Kansas, but neither does she seem in palpable danger.

That changes once she and Peeta are transported to the outdoor arena where, with wits and weapons, they battle the other tributes and assorted perils generated by the game makers (including a dandified Wes Bentley), who dole out death via computer touch screen. There, in a rapidly cut massacre that pits boy against girl and finds youngsters killing and falling and dying in a frantic, fragmented blur, Mr. Ross and his editors, Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling, set the stage and stark mood. For her part Katniss, though frozen in fear, follows the advice of her and Peeta’s mentor, Haymitch (an overly cute Woody Harrelson), and runs in the opposite direction. It’s a strong, visceral scene that quickens the pace and pulse, and distills the story’s horror — suffer the little children to enter the arena — in blunt visual terms.

Nothing else in the arena comes close to that initial fight in its sheer primal impact. Working with Tom Stern, Clint Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer, Mr. Ross tries to find mystery in the forest, in its canopy of trees and thick undergrowth, but never locates a deeper dread, despite the computer-generated fireballs and hounds, and especially the other tributes. Part of what makes the “Hunger Games” books so effective is that they literalize the familiar drama of adolescence, translating the emotional assaults, peer pressure, cliques and the tortured rest into warfare. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” did the same on television, except there the villains were supernatural demons. In “The Hunger Games” the real enemies are adults, including, of course, the parents catching the show on TV.

Fans of the Japanese cult film “Battle Royale” may see some overlap with its allegory about students sent to an island to fight to the death, and others may be reminded of Orson Scott Card’s science-fiction novel “Ender’s Game,” about children trained to battle an alien species. If you’ve seen the pint-size assassins in the recent action flicks “Kick-Ass” and “Hanna,” which feature prepubescent girls who lock, load and shoot without batting a lash, you may think you’ve also seen it before. You haven’t, not really. Although the girls in those movies are vaguely sexualized, their age exempts them from the narrative burdens of heterosexual romance. They don’t have to bat those lashes at the boys, and they don’t need to be saved by them either, as in the “Twilight” series.

What invests Katniss with such exciting promise and keeps you rapt even when the film proves less than equally thrilling is that she also doesn’t need saving, even if she’s at an age when, most movies still insist, women go weak at the knees and whimper and weep while waiting to be saved. Again and again Katniss rescues herself with resourcefulness, guts and true aim, a combination that makes her insistently watchable, despite Mr. Ross’s soft touch and Ms. Lawrence’s bland performance. One look at District 12, which Mr. Ross conceives as a picturesque old-timey town — filled with withered Dorothea Lange types in what was once Appalachia — and it’s clear that someone here was enthralled with the actress’s breakout turn in “Winter’s Bone” as a willful, resilient child of the Ozarks.

A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss, but now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission. The graver problem is a disengaged performance that rarely suggests the terrors Katniss faces, including the fatalism that originally hangs on her like a shroud. What finally saves the character and film both is the image of her on the run, moving relentlessly forward. Unlike those American Adams who have long embodied the national character with their reserves of hope, innocence and optimism, Katniss springs from someplace else, a place in which an American Eve, battered, bruised and deeply knowing, scrambles through a garden not of her making on her way to a new world.

“The Hunger Games” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Brutal child-on-child violence and death.
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