CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
Confession: I have not read any of Suzanne Collins books, probably because they're classified as Young Adult rather than Flabby Old Git. Nor have I watched any of the trailers or read any of the promo bumf: I'm increasingly of the belief that the less you know the better. It's a tactic that paid off with John Carter and it's a great shame it hasn't paid off here. Because for a hundred million dollars (estimated, according to the IMDb) this should have been a whole lot better than it turned out. Despite some nifty moments and some nice ideas and visuals, it doesn't really hang together.
We're asked to believe that some time in the future, the Government demands that two teenagers are selected annually by lottery from each of the twelve districts of the country that rebelled and rose up some 75 years previously. They are taken to the absurdly wealthy and luxurious capital city, trained rigorously and then let loose in a forest to fight to the death on live television; the last man (or woman) standing is the winner. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her selected sister; she and the village's bakery boy Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) enter the insane world of The Hunger Games: looking for sponsorship, eating and living obscenely well, training to kill....
Obviously it's always good to see Donald Sutherland (as the President) and Woody Harrelson (as a former champion) doing their thing; Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci get to wear some hilariously weird costumes and hairpieces. They mainly show up in the Capital City sequences and they're really the most fun and the most interesting; the forest sequences end up looking like a thousand other movies shot in the forests. Sadly, the fight scenes look terrible: the hand-held videography reduces everything to an indistinct blur and it's impossible to tell what you're looking at. Possibly those sequences are the ones trimmed on the BBFC's advice because Lionsgate wanted a 12A certificate; the loss of seven seconds to avoid a 15 doesn't make any difference and you can't tell where the edits have been made.
The idea of kids forced to kill each other off obviously harks back to Battle Royale, and the randomly selected participants in a live snuff TV show brings to mind Series 7: The Contenders (an interesting film which an elderly couple walked out of when I saw it in the old Warner, now Vue, in Cambridge). But the rationale behind such a show didn't make any sense in either of those movies and it doesn't make sense here. How did these circumstances arise? The presence of numerous Imperial Roman names in the character list - Claudius, Caesar, Seneca etc - suggests a parallel with the gladiatorial deathmatch, but the Roman gladiators weren't 14-year-old girls. Next question: how big are these once rebellious but now mercilessly oppressed districts? District 12 doesn't appear to be much larger than a village.
And who's making money off this show? One can understand the decadent and vacuous elite watching it, but even the impoverished peasantry in Districts 12 and 11 are tuning in; they certainly don't appear able to afford to pay to see it, so presumably it's free. But we don't see any advertising either so how is it funded? Then there's Peeta's special survival skill: painting himself to look like a tree, applying incredibly detailed camouflage to his own body. Not sure that's much use unless you've got the time to do it without up to 23 sword-wielding teenagers chasing you through the woods trying to kill you. And since we're asking: is it even real? The organisers are able to create CGI trees, firestorms and giant mythical beasts and drop them into the arena whenever the contestants wander too far or they need to spice the action up, but if it's all a virtual simulation then how can the teenagers be killed?
I guess you're not supposed to ask. Or these things might all be explained in the novels. But, crucially, they're not explained in the movie. Maybe it'll be made clearer in the sequels, if they happen (apparently it depends on the box-office take for this one). Whether they get a franchise out of The Hunger Games or not, this first instalment raises too many questions and doesn't answer enough of them to be satisfying. And at around two and a half hours, it takes a very long time to not answer them. I really wanted to like The Hunger Games and sadly it didn't work. (Nothing to do with the hooting idiot somewhere at the back of the cinema who liked to whistle and whoop at inappropriate moments.)