Blockbuster book to film adaptations have moved on from magic-n-monsters to the arena of macabre survival games — at least until the next bestselling Johnny-come-lately hits the shelves.

Futuristic reality TV spoof The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross, is based on the first of three books from author Suzanne Collins. It’s the latest box office behemoth to serve up nothing remotely new and plenty of it.

Collins’ story is a rehash of blood-spotted Japanese action/adventure Battle Royale (2000), in which Takeshi “Beat” Kitano welcomed a batch of young folk to television hell: a last person standing death match broadcast for your viewing pleasure.

The Hunger Games is based in ravaged North America where every year the government collects 12 pairs of teenagers from 12 different districts to compete in the eponymous event, a nationally televised Survivor-esque boy/girl scout challenge with a cruel twist. Only one of the competitors — all of which become overnight stars — will emerge alive.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister and is whisked away into an upper-class world with fancy food, good wine, bourgeois living and all the trimmings of celebrity. Then, dumped into a forest-like arena, the contestants are fed like lambs to the slaughter — except they do the slaughtering, or wait for everybody else to.

Lawrence’s celebrity has been a fait accompli since proving her acting chops and then some in 2010’s superb chilly drama, Winter’s Bone. She’s excellent in the crucial role, generating a sense of quiet dignity rare amongst the bling and bombast of blockbuster movies.

Ross, whose previous film as a director was the expendable horse racing salt lick Seabiscuit, competently establishes the story’s political context. In this depraved world, the lower class are fed into the system and ground to mulch for the purposes of mass entertainment and mass consumption.

The Hunger Games’ potentially pointy premise, however, is more a penknife than a sword. Ross misses the opportunity to make a biting political commentary — or simply isn’t interested — when the writing on the wall begs for it.

We are invited to take the game on its own merits, without satire or commentary. The film relegates its audience to the same level as the plebs tuning in to watch the latest contrived developments on their teev before eventually changing the channel.

The predicament the characters find themselves in — which amounts to wandering around bushy areas and climbing trees — feels, sans a sense of danger or dread, like a high school geography excursion or a round of “you’re it!” with a Gillian Rubinstein twist.

Taking a leaf out of the Paul Greengrass/Bourne Identity book of woozy editing 101, Ross cobbles The Hunger Games together with blurry lickety-split energy, heavy on fleeting shaky shots that make it very difficult to appreciate the set design.

There are glimpses inside a Truman Show-esque control room, where TV programmers conjure up spicy new ingredients to add to the show. Ross ought not to have bothered. These are shoehorned in as precursors to special effects rather than insights into how the program is constructed.

Like the viewers inside the world of The Hunger Games, we tune in for flavour of the month prime time entertainment — and we get just that. The film takes on the fleeting celebrity of its characters: all the rage one week, forgotten the next. A mild dollop of expendable entertainment with only the vaguest lasting impression.

The Hunger Games’ Australian theatrical release date: March 22, 2012. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey